The Federal Duck Stamp Story


    The Federal Duck Stamp Program is one of the most successful conservation programs ever initiated. Since 1934 millions of Duck Stamp dollars have contributed to preserving over 4 million acres of wetland habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

  • When the explorers from Europe first set foot upon the continent of North America, the skies and marshes were filled with millions of ducks and geese and the woods and plains abounded with an astonishing variety of wildlife. The native Indians, in their many centuries of dwelling in this plenteous land, took from it only what they could use and saw the flocks and herds flourish and multiply.
    It took the explorers and the thousands of settlers who followed them only a little over 400 years to deplete these great flocks and herds, reducing some by millions and completely extinguishing others. Migratory waterfowl, especially, were decimated as market hunters and overly eager sports enthusiasts laid waste to the vast flocks. Millions of acres of marshland were drained to feed and house this country's ever- growing population, greatly reducing waterfowl breeding and nesting habitat.
    In addition, the elements joined forces to reduce wetland areas as the central portion of the continent was devastated by a prolonged drought of historic proportions. The Dust Bowl years left that area withered and unproductive, and even the lush timbered swamps of the South and the marshes of the Gulf Coast suffered. Migration rest areas and wintering grounds became endangered.

    As early as 1913, Congress recognized the importance of waterfowl management and protection with the enactment of the Weeks-McLean Law. In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed and protection from commercial exploitation was afforded to both migratory waterfowl and other species of birds.

    By the Late 1920's, the waterfowl situation became critical and the descendants of the early explorers and settlers realized that urgent action was required to remedy the problem. A very significant step was taken when the U.S. Congress enacted the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929. The law expanded the existing National Wildlife Refuge System established in 1903 and provided authorization for the acquisition of wetlands for waterfowl habitat. However, the law was only a stopgap measure, for it made no provision for the procurement of funds with which to purchase the land.

    J.N. "Ding" Darling, a nationally known political cartoonist, led a drive by conservationists to remedy the funding problem. Darling, who was keenly interested in hunting and wildlife, watched in dismay as the waterfowl habitat in his own state was drastically reduced. Darling put his own artistic talents to use and frequently published biting cartoons depicting the destruction of this nation's waterfowl and its habitat.

    Undoubtedly, however, Darling's most significant contribution was the concept of a Federal revenue stamp to generate the necessary funds for the acquisition of waterfowl habitat. His idea became reality on March 16, 1934, when Congress passed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act which required every waterfowl hunter 16 years of age and over to annually purchase and carry a Federal Duck Stamp. Proceeds from the sale of Duck Stamps were earmarked to buy and lease waterfowl habitat.

    It seemed only fitting to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Darling be commissioned to design the first Federal Duck Stamp. Roosevelt had previously appointed Darling as Chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey, predecessor of the present U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Darling produced a small pencil sketch of a pair of mallards coming in over a marsh pond. In August 1934, the Duck Stamps went on sale and a total of 635,001 were sold at one dollar each.

    The price of Duck Stamps has increased over the years with the decreasing availability of wetlands. Waterfowl habitats which once sold for as little as $1 an acre now cost 1,000 times that price. By 1993, a collector who had purchased each of the 60 stamps at the issue price would have spent a total of $249. This investment would presently be worth over $4,000! That percentage increase has turned many stamp buyers into avid collectors. All stamps not sold are destroyed 3 years after issue, thus preserving the value of the stamps purchased by the collectors.

    Most of the annual stamps depict waterfowl in their natural environment. Until 1949, nationally recognized wildlife artists were commissioned annually to produce a Duck Stamp Design. However, since that year, an annual Duck Stamp design is chosen by a panel of waterfowl and art experts. This is the only annual art competition sponsored by the Federal Government, and the number of annual entries varies between 400 and 1,000!

    Any artist can enter the contest by submitting a 10 x 7 inch waterfowl design and paying an entry fee. The winner receives a pane of stamps bearing his or her design and maintains the right to sell prints of the winning artwork which are eagerly sought by collectors.

    The Federal Duck Stamp Program is one of the most successful conservation programs ever initiated. Over 98 cents out of every Duck Stamp dollar goes directly into a fund used solely to acquire wetlands for North American waterfowl. These lands become part of the National Wildlife Refuge System and also benefit many other species of plants and animals.

    The focus of the program has changed over the decades. The goal in recent years has been to preserve key wintering and breeding habitats in each of the four major north-south migratory waterfowl flyways, particularly those most threatened by development. Efforts are also underway to save areas needed by species whose numbers are low or declining, such as the following ducks: mallards, black ducks, canvasbacks, cackling Canada geese, Pacific brants, Pacific white-fronted geese, redheads, pintails, and wood ducks.

    The Duck Stamp Program also aids wildlife other than waterfowl. One-third of the nation's endangered or threatened species finds food and shelter in wetlands conserved under the program. Coastal wetlands also provide spawning and nursery habitat for our nation's fishery resources.

    In addition to providing valuable fish and wildlife habitat, wetlands help to maintain groundwater supplies and water quality, protect shorelines from erosion, store floodwaters, trap sediments that can pollute waterways, and modify climatic changes.

    Possession of the most recent Federal Duck Stamp (must be signed in ink across it's face) provides free admission to all National Wildlife Refuges where entrance fees are charged. It is also one way to support the goals of The North American Waterfowl Management Plan, a historic 1986 agreement between the United States, Canada, and Mexico which sets forth a course of action for these countries to take in order to ensure the continued survival of abundant populations of ducks, geese, and swans.

    The success of the Federal Duck Stamp Program and the North American Plan requires the continued strong commitment, creativity, and hard work by the Federal governments of these three nations, state and local governments, private organizations, businesses, and individual citizens.

    The purchase of a Federal Duck Stamp provides an opportunity for every citizen to make a small investment in an enormous endeavor--the preservation of our natural heritage!

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