Federal Duck Stamp: History, Purpose, and Conservation Impact

A comprehensive insight into the program that stands as the cornerstone of waterfowl and wetlands conservation

Update: The Duck Stamp Modernization Act of 2023

On December 19, 2023, President Biden signed the Duck Stamp Modernization Act of 2023, which allows individuals to use their E-Stamp certification for the entire waterfowl hunting season instead of just 45 days post-purchase. The US Fish and Wildlife Service will begin implementation of the Modernization Act more than a year ahead of schedule and will be operational for the 2024–2025 migratory bird hunting season. Waterfowl hunters and fellow conservationists will now be able to purchase the 2024–2025 E-Stamp starting July 1, 2024, and the E-Stamp certification will be valid from the date of purchase through June 30, 2025. To learn more about the Modernization Act, visit https://www.fws.gov/story/2024-05/taking-tradition-future-implementing-duck-stamp-modernization-act.

The Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, widely known as the Duck Stamp, is one of America’s earliest conservation success stories. Since 1934, sales of Federal Duck Stamps have generated over $1.2 billion, conserving more than 6 million acres of migratory bird habitat, much of it within the US Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge System. Here is an in-depth look into the pivotal program that protects and sustains healthy habitats for waterfowl and other migratory birds, supports waterfowl hunting, delivers essential ecosystem services, and unites conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts nationwide. 

2024-2025 Federal Duck Stamp with northern pintail painted by Chuck Black (c) USFWS.jpg

Pictured above is the 2024-2025 Federal Duck Stamp featuring three tundra swans painted by Chuck Black from Montana. Credit: Duck Stamp 2024-2025, Chuck Black/USFWS

Federal Duck Stamp Program

Federal Duck Stamps, produced annually by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), are essential for wetlands conservation. By law, 98 percent of the purchase price directly funds the protection of wetlands and associated migratory bird habitats through land purchases, leases, and conservation easements. Lands purchased with Duck Stamp dollars become part of the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS), a dedicated network of US lands and waters set aside for wildlife conservation. Long-term easements funded by Duck Stamp dollars are held by the USFWS but do not affect property ownership. These provide a more economical means of securing the long-term, often perpetual, protection of critical migratory bird habitats while retaining the working land values of the properties.

Duck Stamp Dollars at Work

Duck Stamp funds have played a pivotal role in establishing or expanding over 300 National Wildlife Refuges, with each state benefiting from at least one. These public lands provide vital habitat for waterfowl and hundreds of fish and wildlife species, including one-third of those listed as threatened or endangered. Moreover, numerous National Wildlife Refuges are accessible for public hunting and other outdoor activities,including fishing, bird-watching, hiking, paddling, wildlife photography, and more. A current Federal Duck Stamp also gives free admission into any National Wildlife Refuge that charges an entry fee.

All proceeds from Federal Duck Stamp sales are deposited into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund (MBCF), established by the Duck Stamp Act. The MBCF provides the Department of the Interior with financing for the acquisition of strategically identified migratory bird habitats. 

Duck Stamp funds also have enabled the National Wildlife Refuge System to conserve in perpetuity thousands of small wetlands and grasslands in the Prairie Pothole Region. These areas are known as Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs). Totaling over 3 million acres, these acquired areas are organized into 38 wetland management districts (WMDs), often spanning multiple counties. WPAs provide healthy habitat for millions of breeding, resting, and nesting waterfowl, shorebirds, grassland birds, and other wildlife.

History of the Duck Stamp


Pictured above is the 1934-1935 Duck Stamp. Jay N. "Ding" Darling's etching, "Mallards Dropping In," served as the basis for the first Federal Duck Stamp. Credit: Duck Stamp 1934-1935, Jay N. "Ding" Darling/USFWS

A group of sportsmen concerned about the decline of duck populations and the loss of their habitats came up with the idea for the Federal Duck Stamp during the Dust Bowl era. The 1930s were plagued with the most devastating drought in US history, turning wetlands into barren wastelands and decimating duck populations. Something had to be done—and fast—to save waterfowl.

While the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929, enacted by President Herbert Hoover, authorized the acquisition and protection of waterfowl habitats, the law did not establish a permanent funding source for these efforts. Duck hunters and their conservation allies rallied, urging Congress to pass the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act.

The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act introduced an unprecedented concept. Duck hunters voluntarily agreed to impose on themselves an annual fee to support conservation efforts in exchange for the opportunity to hunt migratory waterfowl. Additionally, the annuity of Duck Stamp funds provided the US Fish and Wildlife Service with a consistent and continual funding source, enabling strategic wetland acquisition for the first time.

On March 16, 1934, Congress passed, and President Roosevelt signed, the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, commonly called the Duck Stamp Act.

The first Federal Duck Stamp was designed by artist and director of what is now the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Jay "Ding" Darling. Six days into office, the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, a long-championed bill by Darling, was passed. The Act was later amended in 1976 to the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act to acknowledge its direct contributions to habitat conservation.

Darling also initiated an annual tradition of showcasing the work of leading wildlife artists on the stamp. For the first 15 years, the Service commissioned artists to design the stamp. Soon, artists began submitting unsolicited artwork for consideration. In 1949, the first Federal Duck Stamp Art Competition was held. Walter Weber's image of two trumpeter swans was selected from 88 entries to become the 1950–1951 stamp. This competition, now an annual event, attracts hundreds of artists nationwide who are competing for the honor of becoming the next Federal Duck Stamp Artist. Winning the competition significantly boosts the artist's profile, increasing the value of their work and allowing them to sell products featuring the Duck Stamp art.

What this program has done for wetlands, waterfowl, and other wildlife is one of the greatest success stories in conservation history.

The Duck Stamp and Hunting

Hunters have been integral to conserving America's natural resources, and there is no finer example than the success of the Federal Duck Stamp Program. Since its inception, The Duck Stamp Act mandates waterfowl hunters aged 16 and above buy and carry a valid Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (Federal Duck Stamp) before hunting migratory waterfowl. Today, revenue from stamp sales goes into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, which is exempt from annual appropriations.

Limited access to public lands is a significant obstacle to hunting participation. However, hunting is accessible on all the nation's Waterfowl Production Areas and over 300 National Wildlife Refuges. Special hunting opportunities for youth and individuals with disabilities are also available at many of these sites, funded in part through proceeds from the sale of Duck Stamps. For an online guide to public hunting opportunities on National Wildlife Refuge System lands, visit www.fws.gov/hunting/map.

Migratory bird hunters aged 16 and older are required to possess a current signed Federal Duck Stamp, in addition to any necessary state licenses and permits, to hunt legally. For information on hunting laws, regulations, and requirements specific to your hunting area, please consult state and local wildlife agencies.

Ducks Unlimited and the Duck Stamp

The Federal Duck Stamp program plays a crucial role in supporting Ducks Unlimited's mission to conserve wetlands and associated habitats for waterfowl and other wildlife.

For example, DU, in collaboration with the US Fish and Wildlife and other partners, has completed numerous wetland restoration projects on public lands. Additionally, DU supports increased annual funding for the National Wildlife Refuge System to manage wildlife habitat, restore infrastructure, enhance education programs, and improve public access to outdoor recreation. Furthermore, DU collaborates with the USFWS to secure perpetual easements from landowners through the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program, which itself is funded primarily through Duck Stamp sales. These conservation efforts are safeguarding wetlands and grasslands on private lands, while delivering a multitude of environmental outcomes that benefit the broader American public.

While the Federal Duck Stamp is a government initiative, its purchase directly supports the goals of Ducks Unlimited through collaborative efforts and shared conservation objectives.

Junior Duck Stamp Program

Junior Duck Stamp with a King Eider painted by Emily Lian (c) USFWS.png

Pictured above is the 2024-2025 Junior Duck Stamp featuring features the image of a king eider created by 17-year-old Emily Lian of Oregon. Credit: Junior Duck Stamp 2024-2025, Emily Lian/USFWS

The Federal Junior Duck Stamp Conservation and Design Program is an engaging curriculum that integrates art and science to teach wetlands and waterfowl conservation to students from kindergarten to high school. The program encourages students to explore their natural environment, learn biology and wildlife management principles, and share their knowledge with others.

The winning artwork from a national art contest becomes the design for the Junior Duck Stamp, produced annually by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. This $5 stamp has become a highly sought-after collector's item. All revenue from the sale of Junior Duck Stamps supports recognition and environmental education activities for participating students. 

Put Your Stamp on Conservation

You don't have to be a waterfowl hunter to buy a Duck Stamp. Each year, approximately 25 percent of Duck Stamps are purchased by non-hunters. Many stamp collectors and conservationists support habitat programs funded by Duck Stamp sales. This is appropriate because the habitats acquired and protected with Duck Stamp revenues benefit numerous species beyond ducks and geese. Wetland and upland habitats offer vital habitats for hundreds of species, including resident and migratory birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. And many people even purchase extra Duck Stamps annually, providing them as gifts and knowing they are making a lasting contribution to the protection of our Nation’s most productive landscapes.

Whether they hunt or not, conservationists can make a difference with each Duck Stamp purchase. For more information on the Federal Duck Stamp Program, visit www.fws.gov/duckstamps.