How a stamp filled American skies.
Soon after the last shotgun broke the dawn silence and the sun sank beneath the cedar lined horizon, my dad and I would pack our guns. We would listen to the duck hunters near and far fire up their Mercury’s and Evinrudes and navigate the mazing creeks back to the boat ramp. They were all foolish. While the hunts may have been bountiful and the ducks may have been aplenty, the hunters that started off on their boats at night break were cutting the real pleasure short. When the sun hides behind the earth and darkness blankets the Jersey salt marsh, the ducks move. In a fanatical display of zigs and zags, splashes in the once decoy spread and whistling wings seemingly within arm’s reach, this is when the waterfowl find time to travel safely.
My dad and I would admire this grand finale after every hunt. We would fire up the motor in the dark, and head out well after sunset. In my youthful state I could never imagine a prettier spectacle. In my youthful state I never realized that my ticket to the show was clipped to the back of my hunting jacket, with sticky magnificence and a power far beyond aesthetics: the Federal Duck Stamp.
A Hundred Year History
In the 19th century the show never made a stop at the Jersey salt marsh, at least not in the grandeur it does today. Waterfowl were facing serious difficulties. A booming industrial revolution developed on untouched lands, drained swamps, and laid foundation on some of the most crucial duck breeding grounds. Market hunting had peaked with wild duck meat fetching high market prices as restaurant table cuisine. A plume industry was raking up to $17 million a year and connecting the economies of Paris, London, and New York City by feather. Wood ducks were near extinction and the night sky no longer played the melody of whistling wings. Powerful legislative moves by Theodore Roosevelt created the framework for a duck revival, and his waterfowl-minded fifth-cousin filled in the blanks.
In 1929 the Migratory Bird Conservation Act was signed by President Calvin Coolidge. This act would allow the creation of a Migratory Bird Conservation Commission (MBCC), which would work directly with the Secretary of the Interior to buy or rent critical wetland habitats for waterfowl habitat improvement. The act was intended to reverse the loss of a disastrously declining waterfowl population and although valiant and bold in theory, the Act proved useless due to its budget constraints. Four years later, Theodore Roosevelts distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, took office. Just after his first year in office, FDR signed the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act to provide the MBCC with the funds they needed. The legislation later became known as “The Duck Stamp Act”.
Stamps Ensure Healthy Habitat
Under law, 98 cents to every dollar spent on the Duck Stamp is used directly for the rent or purchase of migratory bird wetland habitat for the National Wildlife Refuge System. When the law was signed in 1934, the Federal Duck Stamp was one dollar. The price of the stamp continued to rise in response to inflation and sky-rocketing land values until 1991 when the duck stamp reached a whopping $15. However, in America’s financial tragedies of the 1990’s and 2000’s, inflation continued on its course, and the money generated by the Duck Stamp was again rendered ineffective. President Barak Obama signed the Federal Duck Stamp Act of 2014 raising the price from $15 to $25, bringing the Duck Stamp back to life. Thanks Obama.
Today, there are about 1.4 million duck hunters in America, each of which is required to purchase a Federal Duck Stamp for legal harvest. With 98 percent of the $25 spent on the duck stamp going directly to the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, hunters generate roughly 34 million dollars for migratory bird habitat purchase every year. These numbers are astounding, but this isn’t even accounting for the non-hunting stamp buyers including general conservationists, waterfowl enthusiasts, and bird watchers nationwide.
With this funding, the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund has purchased hundreds of thousands of acres of waterfowl habitat including 140,000 acres in Oregon, 331,000 acres in Texas, and 360,000 acres in Georgia.
Duck Hunting Insurance
When the duck stamp raised from $15 to $25 in 2014, the air of local hunting shops and boat ramps was filled with nostalgia over the good ol’ days. Days when you could hunt for near free and you didn’t have to fork out nearly $30 for a mere stamp just to be allowed to legally hunt. Foolishness. Generations before us remember the good ol’ days as a time before the Duck Stamp. A time when hearing a wood duck shriek was a once in the lifetime occurrence, when canvasbacks had been all but extirpated from the Chesapeake Bay, and when development had drained the breeding wetlands that furnished the imagination a migration-waiting duck hunter.
When the last of the day’s duck hunters fire up their motors and begin their dawn rush back to the boat ramp, I continue to wait. The Duck Stamp on my back is my ticket to the greatest waterfowl show on earth, and I’ll be damned if I’d miss it.