From waterfowler to conservationist

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On the eastern seaboard of the United States, a duck hunter sat patiently in his blind. With his collar turned to the wind, he scanned the sky for birds, hoping that his luck was about to improve.

For the last few years, ducks were few and far between. The great flights that had once swept down from the north had dwindled. The autumn frost still came. The anticipation that every duck hunter feels when those cold nights first appear still came. The laughing group of friends carrying gear into the marsh still came. But the ducks did not.

It was 1936, seven years after the Wall Street Crash of October 1929, and the world was in the midst of the Great Depression. It was also seven years after the beginning of a devastating drought that had yet to relinquish its grip—that had hammered the breeding grounds of ducks all across the Prairie Pothole Region. The ducks were suffering their own depression, and many hunters believed they were about to see the end of waterfowling.

While farms on the prairie were failing in rapid succession, and while businesses of all types were floundering, the waterfowl population, which had been in decline for decades, crashed after successive years of drought.

Already the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, the forerunner of today's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, instituted highly unpopular measures to control the harvest of ducks—the one thing they could influence. Many of these measures are still in effect today, including bans on the use of live decoys, baiting, and shotguns larger than 10-gauge, as well as the requirement that guns used for waterfowling be limited to just three shells. Just like today, seasons and bag limits were adjusted to protect ducks. The 1936 season was but thirty days. Species completely protected from harvest included canvasbacks, redheads, buffleheads, wood ducks, ruddy ducks, and brant. And while it may seem generous to hunters of today, the limit on scaup was reduced to eight, and the total bag limit of other species was restricted to ten. Many hunters fully expected the 1937 season to be completely closed. After all, in their minds it couldn't get much more restrictive.

Although the science of wildlife management was in its infancy, already it was known by some that the key to reversing the decline of waterfowl was to protect and manage their nesting grounds. But not everyone agreed, especially those who encouraged the swift expansion of wheat farming on these northern, and often dry, plains. As the prairies were plowed and drained, farming advocates simply pointed to the wealth of water just north of the prairies, the permanent waters of the Canadian boreal forest. "The ducks can just move there," they said.

Although the boreal region is an important producer of some types of ducks, its production of mallards, pintails, and many other waterfowl pales in comparison to the prairie and is unsuitable for some species. No, those species that had evolved for millennia to nest in the endless grasslands, and to feed and raise broods on the myriad prairie wetlands, were not able to simply move north. This fact was already borne out by the rapid decline in duck populations over the previous seven years, a fact that had not escaped early biologists and some citizen conservationists.

The federal government did what it could in the United States, responding by creating many of the national wildlife refuges we know today, focusing on the prairie region of the United States as well as down the flyways, providing breeding areas in the north and migration habitat throughout. And in 1934 the first "duck stamp" was issued, with the money earmarked for duck habitat. But it was not nearly enough.

The Bureau of Biological Survey could only work within the United States and only spend duck-stamp dollars there. And there was no counterpart at the time, and no money to even create or fund a counterpart, in Canada, where nearly three-quarters of ducks were raised.

For the average duck hunter, these were frightening times. Their passion, their lifestyle, was possibly nearing an end. To witness this crushed the spirit of many waterfowlers of that age.

Excerpted from The Ducks Unlimited Story, Chapter 1: "Habitat loss and drought"