Conservation: Fueling the Duck Factory 

For almost 50 years, states have worked with DU to conserve vital waterfowl habitat across Canada
By Scott C. Yaich, Ph.D.

Imagine you're a business owner and that for every dollar you invest in your business, anonymous silent partners invest at least another three dollars. Well, that's the deal you get if you're a state conservation agency and you invest in waterfowl habitat conservation in Canada with Ducks Unlimited. For that matter, as a DU member, you get the same deal for your personal investment in the Canadian breeding grounds. The history of a 48-year partnership between DU and the states is a success story of enlightened wildlife management and the continent's first enduring federal-state-private international partnership to conserve waterfowl habitat.  

In 1965, long before the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) or North America Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) were twinkles in anyone's eyes, farsighted leaders from the wildlife agencies of Louisiana, Ohio, and South Carolina founded an innovative program with DU to help conserve waterfowl habitat in Canada. Waterfowl populations in the early 1960s were among the lowest on record, leading to short duck seasons and small bag limits. These agencies were among the first to recognize the importance of conserving the Canadian breeding grounds in order to maintain the duck populations that migrated to their states each fall. 

Approximately 50 to 75 percent of surveyed ducks breed in Canada, in habitats ranging from the lush river valleys along the Pacific coast and the wetland-rich grasslands of the Prairie Pothole Region to the continent-spanning Boreal Forest and beaver pond landscapes of the eastern provinces. Waterfowl research has made clear how the interests and responsibilities of state wildlife agencies are directly tied to these diverse Canadian habitats, which produce a high proportion of the birds that duck hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts in every state enjoy.

With limited resources available to address wildlife conservation needs, state agencies need to be sure that they receive the highest possible return on their hunters' investments in Canada's habitats. A key to doing that is by using waterfowl banding data. Poring over decades of band returns, waterfowl biologists from state agencies and DU work together to target each state's funds to conserve habitat in the regions of Canada that are most important to each state's harvest.    

Between 1965 and 1985, more and more states recognized the importance of Canadian habitats to each state's sportsmen. During this time, the program grew to include 20 states, which collectively contributed about $1.25 million toward habitat conservation annually. However, passage of NAWCA by Congress in 1989 really gave the program a shot in the arm. Intended in large part to fund the vision for waterfowl conservation laid out by the 1986 NAWMP, NAWCA was carefully designed to expand the conservation of wetlands and associated habitats across North America. The NAWMP recognized that the federal government could not alone bear the burden of waterfowl conservation, and it envisioned broad public-private partnerships as the key to success.

To spur the creation of these partnerships, the NAWCA grant program first required that every dollar of federal money be matched by at least one dollar of non-federal funding. In addition, to ensure that the program would be continental in scope, it required that a proportion of the federal funding be used for projects in Canada and Mexico. Taken as a whole, NAWCA created both an incentive and a collective obligation for non-federal partners such as state wildlife agencies and DU to join partnerships for Canadian habitat conservation.

In short, NAWCA has paid off in spades. Within five years, state contributions for NAWCA habitat projects in Canada had doubled to about $2.5 million annually, and it has continued to grow since. In fiscal year 2013, 35 states contributed a record $3.2 million, and other states are continuing to join this creative international partnership. 

One of the most compelling aspects of this effort is the multiplier effect. Since the beginning of the program, DU has matched every dollar contributed by the states. Furthermore, since the beginning of the NAWCA program in 1989, combined state and DU funding has been matched again by federal funding. This means that a state gets at least a dollar's worth of habitat conservation for every 25 cents invested. And because DU's match is composed of the contributions of its members and supporters, DU is getting the same rate of return on their behalf. This means that the states (and DU's supporters) received almost $13 million worth of conservation for their $3.2 million investment in 2013.   

We always need to remember, though, that funding is the means to a desired end—habitat conservation. So what has all this funding actually accomplished? Since the beginning of the NAWMP in 1986, 19.8 million acres have been secured in Canada through acquisition of long-term agreements, and an additional 103.7 million acres have been conserved through activities such as public policy and management partnerships. 

Taken together, that's an area about the size of North and South Dakota plus half of Nebraska. The investments of state, federal, and private partners in the United States represent 49 percent of the funding that made these remarkable habitat accomplishments possible. 

Another reason for such strong support for this effort among the states is that the habitat conserved through their contributions benefits far more than waterfowl production. A broad diversity of other game and non-game fish and wildlife live in the same habitats. For example, many species of migratory birds breed in the same habitats as waterfowl, and many millions of birders delight in watching them each year as they migrate through and winter in their states.

Finally, this habitat conservation partnership is the foundation of recreational activity that generates tremendous economic benefits for every state and for the nation. For example, the economic activity associated with migratory bird hunting in the United States in 2011 supported 69,000 jobs, $3.4 billion in retail sales, $509 million in state and local taxes, and $589 million in federal taxes. So not only is NAWCA-based waterfowl habitat conservation clearly fuel for a tremendous economic machine, but the investments of the state and federal governments are also offset many times over by these tangible benefits to jobs and the economy.

Of course, it's not the strength of the business model or the compelling economic facts that have driven this enduring and successful partnership. It's the love of seeing waterfowl and other birds settling into our favorite places each fall, and in states across this nation, that motivates us. That is ultimately why state wildlife conservation agencies, Ducks Unlimited, and others have worked together for almost 50 years in this unique partnership to conserve habitat across Canada and all of North America. To learn more about this partnership's latest accomplishments for wetlands and waterfowl in Canada, visit nawmp.ca/pdf/HabMat2012English.pdf


Dr. Scott Yaich is director of conservation planning and policy at DU national headquarters in Memphis.