Birds & Birding

Review: The Wild Duck Chase

March 5, 2013

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Enjoy seeing ducks? You can thank the Federal Duck Stamp program. Matt Miller/TNC
Enjoy seeing ducks? You can thank the Federal Duck Stamp program. Matt Miller/TNC

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

One of the most successful conservation efforts in world history was created by a political cartoonist and is funded by a stamp purchased at your local post office.

That may seem improbable. If you don’t hunt ducks, you likely haven’t even heard of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, a federal program that has conserved millions of acres and saved species once considered doomed for extinction.

This often-overlooked conservation success is the subject of Martin J. Smith’s well-reported and entertaining The Wild Duck Chase: Inside the Strange and Wonderful World of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.

Smith expertly traces the beginnings of the Federal Duck Stamp, an episode in conservation history that may read like a far-fetched fantasy given recent headlines of gridlock and sequestration.

In the early 1900’s, due to professional market hunting and the destruction of wetland habitats, populations of ducks, geese and other water birds had crashed. Conservationists raised alarms and succeeded in passing some significant conservation legislation, but many recognized that there needed to be funding for wetland protection and restoration.

The problem? By the 1930s, Americans found themselves in the midst of the Great Depression. Certainly no one would care about ducks and wetlands when many Americans were out of work and struggling to support their families, right?

Not quite. In the forefront of the waterfowl conservation movement was Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper cartoonist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling. Conservation, especially wetland conservation, was a frequent subject for Darling’s cartoons in the Des Moines Register.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt convened a committee to address waterfowl conservation, he appointed Darling, considered by many to be an odd choice. After all, he was not a scientist or land manager.

Writes author Smith:

“Darling’s appointment made some question the new president’s judgment. A cartoonist? Seriously? Equally confounding was that Darling was a stalwart Republican. When Roosevelt later offered Darling the job of head of the Bureau of Biological Survey (a forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), some saw it as Roosevelt’s cynical attempt to buy off someone often critical of his New Deal politics.”

Instead, Darling conceived a program that vested duck hunters in wetland conservation. To hunt ducks or geese, any hunter over the age of sixteen would have to buy a federal stamp. The proceeds from this stamp would go directly to purchasing and restoring wetlands.

Darling created the art on that first stamp, but to bolster interest, an art contest was created. Each year, wildlife artists competed to appear on the stamp.

Smith’s book captures the devoted and sometimes eccentric subculture that has grown up around the stamp and its contest, but it is the overwhelming success of this program that is most striking.

The duck stamp has remained largely out of the public spotlight, notwithstanding a subplot involving duck stamp artists in the Coen brothers’ movie Fargo. But the program has generated $750 million for conservation, with 98 cents of each dollar helping to purchase or lease 5.3 million acres of wetland habitat.

If you have ever visited a national wildlife refuge, there’s a strong chance you’ve stood on ground purchased by duck stamps.

It’s certainly not coincidence that, many wetland birds actually increasing in population.

The bipartisan support that made the stamp possible may seem long ago and far away, but the recipe for the duck stamp’s success seems simple: Engage your most committed constituency through a fee program, and use this support to get results on the ground.

Think of the possibilities: Those who want large predators roaming the continent could buy a wolf or bear stamp—as envisioned by my friend Hal Herring in High Country News. Birders could pay an extra tax on their binoculars that would benefit endangered species. Ecotourists traveling to see rhinos would have to buy a stamp that would benefit local communities.

Still, as Smith so accurately points out in his book, there are challenges. Some facing the Federal Duck Stamp Contest are trivial: Serious artists mock the hyper-realistic wildlife representations that win the contest.

But other changes could significantly change wetlands conservation, and not for the good. Fewer people are duck hunting, meaning a significant decrease in revenues. Birders, despite promotion from the likes of David Allen Sibley, have been reluctant to purchase a stamp associated with hunting, regardless of the good it accomplishes.

The Wild Duck Chase is ultimately, for me at least, a hopeful book. Conservation does not necessarily need broad appeal. It does need passionate support. It helps when those passionate supporters include visionary leaders in the media and government.

This seemingly quaint program can serve as an ideal, as a model for how we can save species and habitats even when times look desperate.

I’ll continue to proudly buy my Federal Duck Stamp each fall, knowing it’s one of the best conservation investments I can make. After reading this book, I suspect you will, too.

The Wild Duck Chase. By Martin J. Smith. Walker Publishing Company, 2012. 261 pages. 

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Matt Miller

Matt Miller is a senior science writer for the Conservancy. He writes features and blogs about the conservation research being conducted by the Conservancy’s 550 scientists. He has served on the national board of directors of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and has published widely on conservation, nature and outdoor sports. More from Matt

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