Milestones in Conservation

A look back at some of the most influential people and events in conservation history
By Ken Babcock

The slogan for Ducks Unlimited's 75th Anniversary, CONSERVATION FOR GENERATIONS, applies to past, present and future generations alike. Several generations of DU supporters, all of whom have shared a love of wetlands and waterfowl, have been at the center of North America's conservation movement for the past 75 years. 

In 1937, the year Joseph Palmer Knapp and his colleagues in the More Game Birds in America Foundation founded Ducks Unlimited, the United States was struggling through the depths of the Great Depression. If the dismal economic conditions were not enough to deal with, much of the continent was in the grips of widespread and prolonged drought. Waterfowl populations plummeted as the prairie potholes of the Duck Factory dried to dust. In these difficult times, DU's founders acted decisively to start a new organization based on a revolutionary idea—that waterfowl populations could be restored through wetland restoration on the birds' primary breeding grounds on the Canadian prairies. 

But DU's founders hardly acted alone. In fact, they were part of a much broader North American conservation movement, which arose in response to dramatic declines in populations of game and other wildlife during the 19th century. This awakening evolved over more than a century, and Ducks Unlimited was a product of that transformation. As we celebrate DU's 75th Anniversary, let's take a look back at some of the conservation milestones that have made a real difference for North America's waterfowl, other wildlife, and people.

Lacey Act—1900

For more than a century following settlement of North America, lack of concern for the future of wildlife and their habitats prevailed. Waterfowl and other wildlife supplied markets and other industries both at home and abroad. By the late 1800s, however, North Americans became increasingly concerned about dwindling wildlife populations and rallied around efforts to conserve them. In 1886, the Audubon Society was formed with the sole purpose of advocating for the protection of wild birds. A year later, the Boone and Crockett Club was organized by hunters concerned about declining wildlife populations. The first game laws were established to curb excessive harvests. But these regulations applied locally or on a state-by-state basis, and were poorly enforced. 

Clearly federal authority was needed to regulate the harvest of waterfowl and other migratory birds. This was partially accomplished with the passage of the Lacey Act in 1900, the first federal legislation protecting game. Signed into law by President William McKinley, the act made transporting illegally taken game across state lines a federal offense. 

In 1902, the National Association of Game and Fish Wardens and Commissioners (now the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies) was formed to provide a forum for cooperation among state and provincial wildlife agencies. The association promoted enactment of a ban on spring harvest of migratory waterfowl and a prohibition on market hunting. It also led the first organized effort to establish state hunting permit requirements with revenues initially earmarked for wildlife law enforcement.

National Wildlife Refuge System—1903

Early conservation champions, led by President Theodore Roosevelt, recognized the need to protect habitat in addition to regulating wildlife harvests. As president, Roosevelt took the first federal action to set aside land specifically for the sake of wildlife. In March 1903, he signed an executive order declaring Pelican Island, a five-acre mangrove swamp near Sebastian, Florida, as the first federal bird reservation. He established more than 50 such reservations that were the building blocks of what would become the National Wildlife Refuge System. Today, this system of public land includes more than 550 refuges and 38 wetland management districts, encompassing more than 150 million acres. DU projects have been completed on many national wildlife refuges. These projects not only provide important habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife, but many are also open to the public for hunting and other forms of outdoor recreation.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act—1918

Another conservation milestone of the early 20th century was the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. The act 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. This treaty also clearly established waterfowl as an internationally shared resource—a principle that profoundly influenced many of DU's founders.

Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act—1934

Several notable events unfolded during the late 1920s and early 1930s that would define Ducks Unlimited's future role. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover signed the Migratory Bird Conservation Act authorizing acquisition of wetlands in the United States as waterfowl habitat, but the legislation did not establish a funding source for this work. In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed a committee composed of Jay N. "Ding" Darling, Thomas Beck, and Aldo Leopold to further assess the dismal state of waterfowl and other migratory birds, and recommend actions necessary to ensure that populations were restored and sustained for future generations. This group proposed the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, which was approved by Congress and signed by the president later that year. 

Importantly, the act declared that funds derived from the sale of federal duck stamps could be used only for the acquisition of land for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Since the act's passage, revenues collected from the purchase of federal duck stamps, mostly by waterfowl hunters but also other conservationists who value waterfowl, have generated over $750 million, which has conserved more than 5.3 million acres of waterfowl habitat in the United States. DU supports legislation to increase the current price of the federal duck stamp to keep pace with inflation, and is encouraging waterfowlers and other conservationists to "Double Up for the Ducks" by purchasing two federal duck stamps each year.  

Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit Program—1935

Another brainchild of Ding Darling was the Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit program, which was established in 1935 to create centers of excellence in wildlife management at land grant universities across the nation. In addition to conducting research, these units provide education and training for wildlife professionals. Much of the science that guides Ducks Unlimited's work, and many of the professionals who deliver this work, are products of this system.

Ducks Unlimited—1937

The 1930s could arguably be called the most transformational decade in the history of wildlife conservation, and Ducks Unlimited was born in the midst of this conservation renaissance. In 1935, the More Game Birds in America Foundation sponsored the International Wild Duck Census, the first comprehensive aerial survey of North America's most important waterfowl breeding grounds. This groundbreaking effort documented the perilous condition of waterfowl habitats and confirmed that the majority of this continent's ducks are produced in Canada. In 1936, More Game Birds founders Joseph Knapp, John Huntington, Arthur Bartley, and Ray Benson gathered at a fishing lodge on the banks of New York's Beaverkill River to discuss the results of this monumental survey. Their discussions led to the incorporation of Ducks Unlimited on January 29, 1937. 

The model that DU's founders envisioned was a simple one. They would raise funds in the United States to secure important waterfowl production areas north of the border, where federal duck stamp funds couldn't be spent. A habitat delivery arm was needed, and in March of that same year, Ducks Unlimited Canada was established to fill that need. Thus the vision of these conservation pioneers came to life, and generations of Ducks Unlimited supporters across North America have kept it vibrant for 75 years, raising more than $3.3 billion and conserving more than 12.4 million acres of wildlife habitat in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. 

Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration (Pittman-Robertson) Act—1937

The same year Ducks Unlimited was founded, Congress passed and President Roosevelt signed into law the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, now called the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, which to this day fosters partnerships between federal and state fish and wildlife agencies, the sporting arms industry, conservation groups, and sportsmen and -women to benefit wildlife. Later, anglers and the fishing and boating industries established similar funding strategies through the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act (the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act) in 1950 and its Wallop-Breaux amendment in 1984. Through this uniquely American system of conservation funding, more than $12 billion has been entrusted to agencies for fisheries and wildlife restoration and management; hunter, angler, and boater access; and hunting and boating safety education. Many Ducks Unlimited projects on state wildlife management areas have been partially supported by these funds.

Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey—1955

Two decades after More Game Birds conducted the International Wild Duck Census, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) launched its first Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey—now the world's most comprehensive and longest-running wildlife population survey. Each year, dozens of biologists from the USFWS, Canadian Wildlife Service, and state and provincial wildlife agencies physically count waterfowl by air and ground along thousands of miles of standardized survey transects across the northern United States and Canada. The data these dedicated men and women collect have been the cornerstone of North American waterfowl management for almost 60 years. 

Ducks Unlimited Membership Banquets—1965

DU volunteers pioneered the concept of the membership banquet, but it was under the leadership of Dale Whitesell, hired as DU's executive vice president in 1965, that these fundraising events were promoted across the nation. Whitesell's model for success included recruitment of leading conservation professionals as "regional directors" to work with thousands of dedicated DU volunteers to hold membership banquets. Largely due to the success of DU's event system, membership grew from fewer than 30,000 in 1965 to nearly 580,000 in 1985, and grassroots fundraising soared from $155,000 to more than $31 million during the same period. Today, grassroots fundraising remains a primary source of unrestricted revenue for DU's conservation programs. 

Ducks Unlimited de Mexico (DUMAC)—1970

Ducks Unlimited de Mexico (DUMAC) was founded in 1970 to secure key waterfowl wintering areas south of the U.S. border. This event was the culmination of three decades of effort by many volunteer leaders. The formation of DUMAC was another significant step toward fulfilling the vision of a continental commitment to North America's wetlands and waterfowl.

Clean Water Act—1972

Prior to this landmark legislation, wetlands had few protections under the law. In fact, many government policies encouraged wetland drainage. For example, the so-called Agriculture Conservation Program, which recognized tile and open-ditch drainage as "conservation" practices, once contributed to national wetland losses of 550,000 acres per year. The tide began to turn in favor of wetlands in 1972 with the passage of the Clean Water Act (CWA), which provided much-needed protection for many of the nation's wetlands. DU is currently working with other conservation groups to restore CWA wetland protections weakened by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. 

Ducks Unlimited's U.S. Habitat Program—1984

After working exclusively in Canada and later expanding into Mexico, Ducks Unlimited began conserving waterfowl habitat on American soil in 1984. DU's conservation work in the United States initially focused on restoration of key waterfowl breeding habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region, but was soon expanded to include key migration and wintering areas. This decision recognized the importance of meeting the needs of waterfowl throughout their annual lifecycle. Today, Ducks Unlimited has completed projects in all 50 states, encompassing more than 4 million acres of prime wildlife habitat.

Farm Bill Conservation Programs—1985

The "conservation title" of the 1985 Food Security Act, commonly known as the Farm Bill, included many wildlife-friendly provisions of vital importance to DU's mission. For example, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to restore perennial cover on marginal cropland under 10- or 15-year contracts, put millions of acres of grassland back on the landscape in the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region. This prime nesting cover helped fuel the spectacular duck recovery that occurred during the mid-1990s when favorable wetland conditions returned to the prairies. Moreover, the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), established in the 1990 Farm Bill and administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has restored nearly 2.5 million acres of wetlands on flood-prone former cropland across the nation. Debate is currently under way on the upcoming 2012 Farm Bill, and Ducks Unlimited is working closely with Congress, the administration, and other conservation groups to ensure that CRP, WRP, and other agricultural conservation programs are reauthorized and adequately funded to maximize benefits for waterfowl and people.

North American Waterfowl Management Plan—1986

The North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) was signed by the federal governments of the United States and Canada in 1986. Mexico became a full partner in this plan in 1994. For 25 years, NAWMP has successfully demonstrated the power of partnerships in delivering waterfowl conservation across this continent. Ducks Unlimited has been a leading supporter of NAWMP since its inception and is actively engaged in a revision that will guide the next quarter century of progress.

CLEARLY, OUR WORK ON BEHALF OF WATERFOWL AND THEIR HABITATS IS NOT DONE. IN FACT, IT HAS ONLY JUST BEGUN. 


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North American Wetlands Conservation Act—1989

The North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, providing federal funding to implement NAWMP in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Each federal dollar contributed through NAWCA is matched by three dollars (on average) from partners like DU, private landowners, foundations, companies, and other conservation groups. NAWCA has helped fund over 1,800 projects on more than 24 million acres in all 50 states, as well as in Canada and Mexico. Ducks Unlimited led the campaign for passage of this legislation and is a perennial champion of NAWCA reauthorization and annual appropriations in Congress.

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Looking Forward

During the past 75 years, Ducks Unlimited has evolved from a fundraising organization with the sole objective of generating funds to secure waterfowl nesting areas in Canada to become the world's leader in wetlands and waterfowl conservation. We have matured from focusing on large individual projects and measuring success by "acres of water" and "miles of shoreline" to delivering landscape-level conservation guided by up-to-date science. Our attention and expertise in the political arena have increased because we recognize that a stroke of the pen by an elected official can dramatically impact, either negatively or positively, our ability to achieve our mission. Today, Ducks Unlimited is a more relevant and important leader in the waterfowl conservation arena than ever before. 

But daunting challenges remain. More than half of America's wetlands have already been lost, and wetland losses continue at alarming rates across this continent. Two percent of the remaining grasslands in the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region is being lost annually. At this rate, half of this vital waterfowl breeding habitat will be gone in less than 40 years. Clearly, our work on behalf of waterfowl and their habitats is not done. In fact, it has only just begun. 


Ken Babcock is senior director of conservation–vision and priorities at DU national headquarters in Memphis.