Known affectionately as “Wilkie“ to close friends, Don Wilkinson has been volunteering with Ducks Unlimited since 1971. His commitment to conservation has spanned jobs, states and nearly 50 years. He grew up hunting ducks in New Jersey with his dad and great uncle. His great uncle was a market hunter in the day, and left Don his double-barreled, 8-gauge shotgun and a deep appreciation for wildlife. Waterfowling is in his blood, so Ducks Unlimited was a natural fit.
A friend invited Don to a DU banquet just a few months after he got out of the Army. The next year, he started volunteering on the committee, and he's never looked back. He was New Jersey state chairman in 1982-1984. During that time, his crowning achievement was instigating adoption of the NJ State Waterfowl Stamp Program. Successfully getting that adopted was a milestone for him, for waterfowl conservation, and for the citizens of New Jersey. He served many years on the eight-member committee, first as a committee person and later as the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife (NJDFW) staffer. Some of his duties were the selection of the stamp artist, the production of stamps, prints and the selection of projects stamp funds would support.
Don helped to form the Tri-County Chapter early in his volunteer years. After several years of growth, the annual event plateaued.
“We had around 500 people and raised around $50,000 each year, but we were at capacity at our venue. So, we split the chapter into three county chapters and started the Tri-County Sponsor Committee,“ he said. “Eventually, the sponsor committee was split into three committees along county lines as well. So, one chapter became six chapters in a matter of a few years, and fund raising grew to over $150,000. More chapters gave us more exposure to more people, and the key of it all is getting them in the door.“
Their success led to an invitation from then DU President Harry Knight for a presentation on forming new chapters at the DU National Convention in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Though his original degree was in business administration, and he worked with his dad in the metal working lubricant business after the Army, a love of hunting and conservation had Don volunteering as a hunter education instructor for NJDFW. His dedication and excellence in that role eventually landed him a job with the agency. “That's when I finished up my degree in environmental science and became a wildlife biologist working in the Hunter Education Section,“ he explained.
Working for the state agency, Don implemented many wetland restoration and enhancement projects with the help of Ducks Unlimited, and he witnessed the multiple benefits beyond waterfowl of their work.
“We did a project on one of our wildlife management area units so we could draw down the water and improve the off-season growth of 'duck food,'“ he recalls. “Our nongame biologist comes over to me one day and says, 'Do you know what you've done?' I was a little concerned, but he quickly went on to explain that there were thousands of shorebirds resting on the drawdown area at night when it was high tide on the Delaware Bay shoreline. It was perfect habitat for them as they were protected by a ring of water.“
When he retired, Don and his late wife moved to Portland, Texas. It didn't take long for both of them to seek out the local DU chapter. Now he co-chairs the Rockport Chapter. “It's a tiny town, but for the last three years we've broken the $100,000-mark,“ he said proudly.
Whether recruiting new DU volunteers or selling raffle tickets, Don uses the universal benefits of wetlands to engage others.
“Down here in coastal Texas, some folks will say they don't hunt ducks, they just fish. It's pretty easy to point to the millions of dollars DU is spending on the Gulf Coast each year and explain that's habitat for their fish and public access for anglers, too. They usually buy a ticket after that,“ he grinned. For others he points to the community protection and aquifer recharge benefits of wetlands. “Wetlands conservation is really about ducks and a whole lot more,“ he explained. “The ecological uplift you get from wetlands is amazing!“
After nearly fifty years volunteering with Ducks Unlimited and retiring from a state wildlife agency, Don has seen many sides of conservation. He fervently believes in the importance of the wetland restoration work that DU does and our personal responsibility as sportsmen and women to put back more than we take.