Saving Wetlands: A History of the Duck Stamp

  • Cover Story
2017-2018 duck stamp

I was invited on my first duck hunt in fall 1987. I was living in New Hampshire at the time, and the plan was to set up a portable blind on a pothole adjacent to the Connecticut River in the pre-dawn hours, then wait for the mallards. I went with two friends who were experienced waterfowlers. They brought the blind, the decoys, the dog, and the duck calls. I was in charge of coffee and my own shotgun, camo, and waders.

“Got your hunting license?” one of my mentors asked as we hunkered in the blind, watching the first tendrils of dawn poke into the dark sky.

“Of course,” I whispered back.

“Got your duck stamps?” asked my other friend.

“You bet,” I replied.

I was fascinated by those two stamps, one issued by the federal government and the other by the state of New Hampshire. They were beautiful! The federal stamp, officially known as the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, had two drakes and a hen, all redheads, flying over low whitecaps. The artist had drawn the wings with such detail that I could see every feather. The New Hampshire stamp showed two Canada geese, wings set as they peered down, about to land. That stamp was equally detailed. When the clerk told me to sign across the stamps after I put them on my license, I cringed at the thought of defacing them.

My hunting mates and I settled onto our stools, waiting and watching the sky. About a half-hour later, the sun inched its way smoothly, gracefully above the trees, lighting up the pothole. Suddenly, a tension filled the air as if chased there by the sunlight.

We could see four ducks flying our way. The dog started vibrating.

One of my friends made a few quacks with his duck call. The ducks looked at the pothole. We thought they had no interest, but as they passed by us, they made a big arc to our right, losing elevation.

“Get ready,” whispered the duck caller. The ducks set their wings.


We stood and shot. Two of the four ducks splashed into the water about 30 yards from our blind. The dog bound in after them. My heart pounded with excitement. It was an unforgettable moment in a lifetime of outdoor pursuits.

Thirty years later, I still look forward to fall, eager to go duck hunting and curious what the annual duck stamps will look like. But today I understand the connection between my duck stamps and robust duck populations.

Wetlands in Crisis

It’s hard to imagine the United States without ducks, geese, and other water birds. Without beavers, muskrats, mink, salamanders, or other animals that rely on wetland habitat. Not to mention fish species – including Northern pike, yellow perch, carp, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, bluegill, bullhead, and minnows – that spawn in marshy bays and backwaters. Yet it almost happened in the 1920s.

In a nationwide effort to boost agricultural production after World War I, the United States drained more than 100,000 square miles of wetlands to create farmland. The wetland crisis hit the western half of the country especially hard.

“Picture, if you can, millions of sick and dying ducks, many of them helpless little fledglings baked to death under the rays of a scorching sun, all for lack of fresh water,” urged Seth Gordon, the Izaak Walton League’s conservation director at the time, in Outdoor America magazine. Gordon was referring to a report by D.H. Madsen, Utah’s Game and Fish Commissioner, which cited the demise of 10 million birds in the West. Much of the devastation was in Utah’s Beaver River Marshes, a major breeding ground for waterfowl and shore birds that migrated throughout Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.

To reverse the draining and deterioration of America’s wetlands, the League partnered with the National Audubon Society, American Game Protective Association, Western Association of State Game Commissioners, and International Association of State Game, Fish and Conservation Commissioners in 1925 to persuade Congress to redirect the 10-percent excise tax paid on firearms and ammunition – about $3.5 million per year at that time – to wetland conservation and creation of wildlife refuges. No luck. The sentiment in Congress was to eliminate excises taxes altogether.

So the League and other supporters of federal wetlands conservation efforts backed a bill to create a $1 federal hunting license, which hunters would be required to obtain in addition to their state hunting license. The proceeds from the license would fund waterfowl refuges. But Congress defeated this bill too.

“The ducks are rapidly going the way of the passenger pigeon,” wrote Gordon in the December 1927 issue of Outdoor America. “Do we want ducks or don’t we? It is now squarely up to the American people.” Members of the League and partner organizations rallied, sending Congress more than 200,000 telegrams and letters in support of wetland conservation.

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Lisa Densmore Ballard is an award-winning writer and photographer dedicated to getting people of all ages outdoors. She stores her duck blind in Red Lodge, Montana.