How Duck Hunters Can Change History

By supporting conservation today, all of us can help ensure a bright future for waterfowl and our sport


Photo © David Devore

By Scott Yaich, Ph.D.

Can duck hunters change history? Think about that for a second. It's a trick question. No one can change what has already occurred, right?

The question should really be: Can today's duck hunters change the future, or history as it will be seen through the eyes of our grandchildren? Based on the accomplishments of history-changing duck hunters who have gone before us, the answer is a resounding "we have, we can, and we must."

We have no less opportunity to shape the future than some of the past's larger-than-life duck hunters, and no less of an obligation to the generations that will follow ours. And you don't have to be a president or congressman to make a profound impact on waterfowl and waterfowl hunting. As anthropologist Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." Fortunately, there are some inspiring examples from which we can learn important lessons.

Hunters demanded early waterfowl protection laws

When faced with significant challenges to waterfowling, duck hunters have always been among the first to rise up as a powerful force for conservation. For example, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, unregulated market hunting was devastating some populations of waterfowl and other birds. One buyer in Norfolk, Virginia, bought as many as 1,000 ducks at a time, paying $1 to $1.50 a pair for harvested canvasbacks and redheads.

Urban restaurants not only featured waterfowl on their menus but also served robins in soups and made "hearty" pies of cedar waxwings and goldfinches. Market hunters quickly met the demand for wildfowl using armament like 4-gauge shotguns and punt guns, essentially small cannons loaded with shot. As many as 15,000 canvasbacks were shot in a single day on Chesapeake Bay during the 1870s.

Shocked by rapidly declining waterfowl populations, duck hunters expressed their concern in the way that remains an effective way to change history—they contacted their elected officials. Duck hunters, working together, demanded legislation that took the critical first step of protecting waterfowl species from overharvest. In response to these vocal constituents, Congress passed laws like the Lacey Act (1900), which prohibited interstate movement of illegally harvested game, and the Weeks-McLean Act (1913), which ended spring waterfowl hunting and marketing of migratory birds. The laws bear the names of congressmen, but the voices of average duck hunters resound today through the benefits of such farsighted conservation legislation.

But arguably the most significant piece of history-changing legislation for waterfowl and other migratory birds, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), usually isn't associated with anyone in particular. Prompted by a serious loophole in the Weeks-McLean Act, the MBTA's drafters went an important step further than previous groundbreaking legislation, building upon others' accomplishments as history makers inevitably do.

Drafted by Dr. T. S. Palmer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and John Burnham and William Haskell of the American Game Protective and Propagation Association, an organization full of duck hunters, the MBTA cemented North American waterfowl conservation in the foundation of an international treaty  (established in the Migratory Bird Convention of 1916) with Great Britain, later joined by Mexico, Japan, and the Soviet Union. President Woodrow Wilson signed the MBTA into law in 1918, providing the legal framework for waterfowl and migratory bird conservation as it exists today. Duck hunters once again changed the history of waterfowl and other migratory bird conservation throughout North America.

Moving beyond protection to habitat conservation

Protection from overharvest was important during the earliest days of waterfowl management, but the importance of habitat conservation quickly came to the forefront as the American landscape of the early 20th century changed rapidly. Fortunately, the United States had a conservation leader in President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) who recognized that. And as "T.R." was prone to do, he acted decisively.

A passionate hunter, Roosevelt saw the need to protect habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. Among the many landmark actions he took on behalf of wildlife conservation, one of his greatest accomplishments was the establishment of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Without this system of more than 150 million acres of habitat dedicated to wildlife, duck hunters would not enjoy the waterfowl populations and hunting opportunity that we have today. This system of conservation land is unrivaled anywhere else on Earth and in large part represents a gift from previous generations of duck hunters to current and future generations.

Although Roosevelt made history by establishing the refuge system, paying for its growth became a challenge in following decades. Fortunately, duck hunters once again stepped forward, with a fellow named Ding Darling leading the way.

Jay "Ding" Darling was a colorful character, to say the least. He paid his way through Beloit College by performing music. "I could sing in any religion you wanted, and I made the rounds of all the funerals every week," Darling recalled. He was later thrown out of college for a time for publishing an editorial cartoon lampooning the college's leading administrators, a skill that he eventually parlayed into a successful career as a newspaper cartoonist, winning Pulitzer Prizes in 1924 and 1942.

Darling loved nature, spending many of his teenage summers on his Uncle John's farm in Michigan. Uncle John gave Darling an early lesson in conservation (and in discipline) when as a small boy Darling shot a wood duck in spring.

But conservation was truly awakened in him when as a young adult he returned to Michigan for Uncle John's funeral. What he remembered as a haven for wildlife had been despoiled. The rich topsoil had eroded, the timber had been cut down, and the river's once clear waters were muddy with sediment. "This was my first conscious realization of what could happen to land, what could happen to clear-running streams, what could happen to bird life and human life when the common laws of Mother Nature were disregarded," Darling said. How many duck hunters have unfortunately experienced similar epiphanies in their lives?

Alarmed by what he was seeing, he turned his considerable abilities as a nationally recognized editorial cartoonist to promoting conservation. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him to the Beck Commission to provide recommendations for solving the Dust Bowl waterfowl crisis, when according to one estimate the U.S. duck population fell from 100 million to 20 million between 1930 and 1934. The commission's primary recommendation to the president was to conserve much more habitat, but the real challenge was a familiar one: how to pay for it.

Later that same year, President Roosevelt appointed Darling as chief of the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey (forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). Darling threw himself into the job, undertaking sweeping change and immediately turning his attention to raising funds to rapidly expand the refuge system as the Beck Commission recommended. With Darling's support, the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act was enacted in March 1934, creating the "federal duck stamp." Since the inaugural duck stamp carrying Darling's design of a pair of mallards was issued, duck stamp sales have raised more than $700 million and conserved more than 5.2 million acres of waterfowl habitat across the United States.

Darling was a plainspoken, committed duck hunter who not only changed history through his personal actions but also through his inspiration of others. Darling likely influenced Joseph Knapp, founder of the More Game Birds in America Foundation, which became Ducks Unlimited in 1937 and grew to more than 40,000 members just a few years later.

Fighting for conservation in the modern era

Sometimes having conservation regulations and funding still isn't enough to protect waterfowl and their habitats. Sometimes it requires a determination to fight on behalf of the resource. And Dr. Rex Hancock is proof that you don't have to be president or the head of a federal agency to change history for the ducks.

Rex Hancock, a dentist from Missouri, moved to Stuttgart, Arkansas, to follow his passion for duck hunting. His intensity, earthiness, and perseverance drew comparisons with a pit bull, and that attitude was important as he battled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when it started to channelize more than 230 miles of Arkansas's Cache River basin during the 1970s. This region of Arkansas is part of North America's most important mallard wintering habitat and has been formally designated as a Wetland of International Importance.

To give you a sense of the man, Hancock called the project "an insult to God's planning of the earth!" After a 1972 lawsuit challenging the adequacy of the 12-page Environmental Impact Statement failed, he took up the charge and founded the Citizens Committee to Save the Cache. Hancock eventually drew to the cause a diverse coalition of 35 national conservation organizations and state agencies in the Mississippi Flyway. He was known to leave patients sitting in his dentist chair as he took phone calls from his army of supporters.

After years of legal and political hand-to-hand combat and the channelization of seven miles of the Cache, the project was finally halted. Conservation agency partners, inspired by Hancock, acted to ensure the project was never revived and to honor his personal commitment. In a fitting tribute to a duck hunter who changed history, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service committed $3.1 million of duck stamp funds—contributed largely by fellow duck hunters—for the first land acquisition for the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is now more than 67,000 acres in size, with more than 72 percent of the land having been purchased with duck stamp dollars. Much of the refuge is also open to duck hunting.

How can today's duck hunters change history?

These are just a few stories that illustrate how duck hunters can, and must, change history. Today's duck hunters must be grateful to these visionaries and all the other duck hunters who preceded us. If not for the duck hunters of previous generations, our sport would likely be very different than it is today—if it still existed at all. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude, but they would not want homage. Instead, they would ask us to pay our debt forward, to make a brighter future for waterfowl and our sport just as they did.

There are countless ways that today's duck hunters can change history (see sidebar). In fact, we do so just by buying duck stamps and joining Ducks Unlimited every year. To preserve the future of duck hunting for our children and grandchildren, we must all commit to making a difference now. We have a debt to pay, and an obligation to the future to fulfill.

Presidents Who Changed Waterfowl Conservation History

  • Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09): The "conservation president" established 50 national wildlife refuges, initiating the national system now containing 550 refuges and 150 million acres of habitat.
  • Woodrow Wilson (1913-21): Wilson signed the Migratory Bird Treaty and implemented legislation that ended market hunting and raised waterfowl conservation to the international level.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45): Calling it a "New Deal for Waterfowl," Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, which created the "duck stamp" to generate revenue for waterfowl habitat.
  • George H. W. Bush (1989-93): The senior Bush made "no net loss of wetlands" the national goal and signed the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which in 20 years has benefited 25 million acres.

Nine Ways Today's Waterfowlers Can Change History

  • Take a youngster hunting. There will be no one to care about waterfowling's history if we don't take personal responsibility for recruiting future generations.
  • Think big and take action. Every individual can play an important role in big conservation achievements.
  • Be passionate and committed. Perseverance is a hallmark of those who have helped change waterfowl history, and passion drove them all.
  • Go to DU events and get your passion recharged! DU is its members, and all DU members are helping to shape a better future for waterfowl.
  • Be active in policies important to waterfowl. As history-changing issues like the Clean Water Act come before Congress, we all shape the future, either with our strong voices or our silence.
  • Make an estate gift to Ducks Unlimited.  By including DU in a will or trust, you can leave a lasting legacy for wetlands and waterfowl.
  • Stay informed. Always be open-minded and seek accurate, complete information about issues relevant to wetlands and waterfowl.
  • Be a leader and open to diverse partnerships. History-changing accomplishments are almost always the result of diverse coalitions rallying around shared objectives while setting aside differences.
  • Buy hunting licenses and duck stamps every year and stay engaged in conservation. Even if you don't hunt every year, your purchase of hunting licenses and duck stamps will help conservation agencies fulfill responsibilities critical to the future of waterfowl.