Protesters ruffle feathers at hunt club
As a small group of hunters stalked their prey over the weekend at the Richmond Hunt Club, little did they know that they were being sought and closely watched as well.
An anti-hunting activist circled over their heads in a motorized parasail, a video camera strapped to his helmet.
While the incident ended peacefully with no arrests, it was the latest volley in feuding between animal-rights advocates and members of private hunting clubs in McHenry County.
The Chicago Animal Rights Coalition began protesting in Richmond three weeks ago. On March 17, protesters outside the Richmond Hunt Club told authorities that an angry hunter allegedly fired two shots over their heads, narrowly missing one of the protesters.
And now the animal-rights group has expanded its battlefield to include the McHenry County Conservation District. The district found itself under attack last week for what the leader of the activist group called "condoning the slaughter of tame birds."
This latest development centers on whether a public body should be involved in promoting the controversial sport, in which pheasants are raised in private hunt clubs for the sole purpose of sending one of the mature animals flying into the sights of a hunter's gun.
On at least two parcels either managed owned by the conservation district, one in Richmond and the other in Woodstock, private hunt club members are allowed free access to the land to track and shoot the pheasants.
That's the same as putting the public's tax dollars toward promoting the sport, animal rights groups contend.
"Really, should a public body like this be involved in such brutality to defenseless animals?" said Steve Hindi, president of the Chicago Animal Rights Coalition, which has held protest marches outside the Richmond Hunt Club.
"People in McHenry County should know they are sanctioning this," said Hindi, who went aloft in the parasail Saturday morning in an effort to "harass" a small group of hunters.
Hindi said his group may begin picketing the conservation district's offices at Glacial Park in Ringwood, as well as the Woodstock Hunt Club, which has agreed to lease 410 acres from the county agency for $30,000 a year over the next five years. Woodstock Hunt Club activities include the hunting of farm-raised birds.
The conservation district has fired back with a sharp salvo of its own, charging Hindi's group with playing fast and loose with the facts.
"We aren't promoting any form of hunting," said Steve Weller, executive director of the conservation district. "That's just not true."
Weller said the district is purchasing, on a contract basis, about 450 acres next to the Richmond Hunt club. The land is controlled by the former owner of the now-defunct Upland Hunt Club but is being managed by the conservation district.
The district won't finish paying for the land until April 1997, Weller said. Until then, under terms of the sale, the district must allow the land's current use to continue. That includes allowing a few hunters who once belonged to the Upland club to release and shoot farm-raised birds on the land.
Weller emphasizes that the bulk of the 9,729 acres either owned or managed by the conservation district is preserved as Wetlands or refuges for wildlife.
However, Weller's remarks rang hollow for one member of the McHenry County Conservation District board who opposed the Woodstock club lease, which was narrowly approved in a 3-2 vote.
Le-Anne Kitterer decried the board's action in the Woodstock and former Upland Hunt Club cases as sanctioning such hunts, unnecessarily exposing the district to liability and opening up the prospect of a costly environmental clear-up after the hunters are gone.
"We are talking about killing birds that, when they are let go, will come back and fly onto your feet," Kitterer said. "Who could kill an animal that didn't even run?"
Kitterer added that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has said the site will need to be environmentally cleansed before it can be converted to other uses. The preliminary cost of extracting the lead buckshot from the grounds of the Woodstock site, where clay pigeons are shot, would cost more than $200 per cubic yard.
On average, Kitterer said, hunters expend about three boxes of shells during target practice at the Woodstock club.
State Rep. Cal Skinner (R-Crystal Lake) said the conservation district's lease with the Woodstock club is all the more reason why the five-member board should be elected, rather than appointed by the McHenry County Board.
"Where's the accountability?" Skinner asked. "If these people were elected, perhaps we could have some."
Meanwhile, officials of the two clubs would only say that they aren't breaking any laws and have no plans to change the sport of hunting farm-raised pheasants.
Earl Johnson, operator of the Woodstock Hunt Club, said recently that that hunters pump millions of dollars each year, in license fees and other costs, into the country's conservation efforts.
"You got to think if you didn't have hunters, you wouldn't have a budget for wildlife officers, game biologists and land biologists," Johnson said.
Officials of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources said the Richmond and Woodstock clubs are helping to preserve hunting in McHenry County. Neither is breaking any state laws, officials said, as long as the firearms are registered and the appropriate ammunition is being used.
"These hunt clubs developed because all of their lands are disappearing," said Carol Knowles, a spokeswoman for the state agency that regulates wildlife and hunting. "Before long these hunters will have no other place to go."