The Federal Duck Stamp turns 80

For eight decades, this visionary program has been a cornerstone of wetlands and waterfowl conservation
By Paul Schmidt and Whitney Tawney

It was the worst of times for ducks, and the bleakest of times for duck hunters. During the early 1930s, the most devastating drought in U.S. history was turning vital wetlands into barren wastelands and decimating duck populations. Hunters had seen duck numbers decline steadily since the turn of the 20th century, but the situation had never been so dire. Something had to be done—and fast—to save waterfowl. Duck hunters and their allies rallied, urging Congress to pass the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, popularly known as the Duck Stamp Act, in 1934. What this program has done for waterfowl and other wildlife since is one of the greatest success stories in the history of conservation.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the federal duck stamp. Since its enactment, this landmark initiative has generated more than $900 million to conserve nearly 6 million acres of wetlands across the United States through the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. The program is a model of conservation efficiency. Approximately 98 cents out of every duck stamp dollar is spent to acquire or lease lands for the National Wildlife Refuge System. These refuges and waterfowl production areas benefit not only ducks and geese but also hundreds of fish and wildlife species, including one-third of those listed as endangered or threatened. In addition, wetlands restored and protected on these lands provide clean water, help control and mitigate floods, buffer storm surges, reduce soil erosion and sedimentation, and offer a host of other ecological benefits.

The duck stamp program has been such a mainstay of our conservation heritage that it's easy to take for granted, but the truth is that this historic legislation didn't happen overnight. It was years in the making. A bill to establish a federal duck stamp was first introduced in Congress in the early 1920s. Similar bills followed but never got the votes they needed to pass both the House and Senate. It is one of the ironies of history that the period of the Roaring Twenties, for all its prosperity and lavish spending, couldn't muster the resolve to spare a few bucks for the ducks.

Why Should I Buy Duck Stamps?

There are many reasons to buy duck stamps. Hunters age 16 and older must purchase a federal duck stamp each year to legally hunt migratory waterfowl in the United States. Birders and other visitors to national wildlife refuges buy the stamp each year to gain free admission to these public lands. Collectors appreciate the beautiful artwork and the collectibility of the stamps. Whatever your motivation for purchasing duck stamps, buy a couple of them each year to help make a difference for waterfowl and our sporting traditions.

Still, those who cared about the health of waterfowl populations recognized the need for federal action, and several important laws were passed early in the 20th century. The Lacey Act of 1900 sought to curtail market hunting by making it a federal crime to transport illegally taken game across state lines. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 established which species of migratory birds could legally be hunted, and designated the federal governments of the United States and Canada as the primary authorities for regulating migratory bird harvests. But these laws were regulatory in nature and did nothing to address the ecological needs of waterfowl.

The emerging science of wildlife management made it clear that what waterfowl needed was more habitat, especially on the prairie breeding grounds. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover signed the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, which authorized the acquisition of wetlands in the United States as waterfowl habitat but did not establish the funding for this work. When the stock market crashed later that fall, the resulting economic depression seemed to doom any hope of securing federal dollars to acquire more land for wildlife refuges.

Undaunted, hunters and other wildlife advocates rose to the challenge, pressuring President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to do something about the "duck depression." In 1933, Roosevelt responded by appointing a special committee to formulate a program for restoring waterfowl populations. Chairing the three-man committee was Thomas Beck, editor of Collier's magazine, which was owned by Joseph Knapp—who just a few years later would found Ducks Unlimited. Joining Beck on the committee were two of the nation's staunchest conservationists, Aldo Leopold and Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling.

Is the Price Right?

The buying power of the federal duck stamp has never been lower. That's because the price of the duck stamp has not been raised since 1991. This 23-year span is the longest the duck stamp has ever gone without a price increase to keep up with inflation. Meanwhile the cost of land has tripled and wildlife habitat needs have continued to increase, which means the federal duck stamp has lost 40 percent of its value. This decline in the stamp's purchasing power is a step backward for wetlands and waterfowl conservation. Ducks Unlimited is working with Congress and the administration to increase the price of the duck stamp to $25. Please join us in this effort to strengthen the duck stamp to meet the needs of waterfowl and maintain a strong hunting heritage by visiting ducks.org/stamp-stories.

Not long after the report from the "Beck Committee" reached Roosevelt, the president asked Ding Darling to take over as the director of the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey (forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). Ten days later Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act. Darling, who was a renowned editorial cartoonist, was tasked with creating the design for the first duck stamp, which went on sale August 22, 1934. In that first year, 635,000 stamps were sold, and since then every waterfowl hunter 16 years of age and older has been required to purchase the stamp to legally hunt waterfowl.

Today the federal duck stamp program remains a vital component of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, which keeps wildlife in the public domain while promoting ethical hunting and responsible science-based habitat management. The refuges established with duck stamp funds help form the world's greatest system of lands dedicated to the conservation of wildlife. These protected areas also provide a wide variety of recreational opportunities for hunters, anglers, hikers, bird-watchers, and other outdoor enthusiasts.

For decades, DU has partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to conserve and restore wetlands on national wildlife refuges across the country. Many of these areas are crucial to DU's continental and regional conservation goals. For example, a good share of DU's work with the USFWS is focused on the U.S. portion of the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR), where duck stamp dollars are used to purchase wetland and grassland easements from willing landowners. In 2013, more than half of the $43 million spent to purchase easements to protect these vital waterfowl breeding areas came from an increase in the allocation of duck stamp funding to the PPR. By combining these dollars with Major Sponsor donations to DU's Preserve Our Prairies Initiative and contributions from both the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) and the Land and Water Conservation Fund, DU and its partners were able to protect 68,554 acres in North and South Dakota last year. Since 1997, this partnership between DU and the USFWS has protected approximately 1.6 million acres of some of the best waterfowl breeding habitat in the Dakotas and Montana.

The Mississippi Alluvial Valley, another DU conservation priority area, is home to a number of national wildlife refuges, including Grand Cote National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). Located in Avoyelles Parish outside of Marksville, Louisiana, this refuge was established with funds from the duck stamp program in 1989. Since then, DU and other partners have worked with the USFWS to return Grand Cote NWR's 6,000 acres of converted cropland back to valuable wetlands to provide key wintering habitat for waterfowl and opportunities for duck hunters.

In the Great Lakes region, DU continues to enhance and restore vital wetlands on a number of national wildlife refuges purchased with federal duck stamp dollars. One prime example is Ottawa NWR. Located in northwest Ohio on the shore of Lake Erie, Ottawa NWR is designated as a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy. Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy, and the USFWS are using Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants and other funds to enhance about 2,500 acres of coastal wetlands in this marsh complex to provide vital feeding and resting habitat for waterfowl during the spring and fall migration.

The duck stamp's conservation reach also extends west to the Pacific Flyway, where federal funds are helping DU restore wetlands in the Central Valley of California. Colusa NWR is a case in point. Located in the Sacramento Valley, this 5,000-acre refuge supports as many as 234,000 ducks and 133,000 geese during the fall and winter months. DU is currently working with the USFWS to restore wetland habitat on a 388-acre parcel of refuge land that was purchased in 2009 with federal duck stamp funds. A mix of seasonal and semipermanent wetlands will be restored on this tract to provide important wintering habitat for waterfowl. This project will also provide new public hunting opportunities.           

If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, it can also be a catalyst for wetlands conservation. More than 1,500 nonfederal duck stamps have been issued since the granddaddy of them all made its debut. Virtually every state has adopted its own version of the duck stamp at one time or another to help fund its conservation programs. Some of the funds from state duck stamps are also used to support continental conservation by leveraging NAWCA grants to restore wetlands on the Canadian breeding grounds. Perhaps it's only fitting that a program that can't directly fund wetlands conservation outside of the United States would inspire other programs that can.


Paul Schmidt is chief conservation officer at DU national headquarters in Memphis, and Whitney Tawney is a government affairs representative at DU's office in Washington, D.C.

ART AND EDUCATION The annual competition to determine the image that will grace the federal duck stamp is the only federally sponsored art contest in the country. Anyone age 18 or older can enter this contest for a chance to have their artwork on the stamp. A specially selected panel judges the competition each fall, looking for that one waterfowl image that stands above the rest in artistic composition. In 1989, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated the Junior Duck Stamp Program, which is intended to connect art and conservation through an environmental education curriculum for students 18 years of age and younger. Each year tens of thousands of students from across the country use this curriculum and compete for scholarships through art contests. Ultimately, the national winner is selected from the 50 state winners in a contest judged by a select panel. The design is used on a stamp that sells for $5. The proceeds from the sale of these stamps are used to support environmental education for students who participate in the program.