Time to Buy a Duck Stamp… or Not

By Mike July 1, 2009 20 comments

July is the traditional time of year in the United States to purchase the new Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, better known as the Duck Stamp. These non-postage stamps serve dual duty as both migratory waterfowl hunting licenses and entrance passes for National Wildlife Refuges where admission is normally charged.

If you’ve never heard of the Duck Stamp before, you might wonder why U.S. birders, even the ones who don’t eat, let alone shoot ducks, purchase these stamps in droves. The core reason is conservation: according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ninety-eight cents out of every dollar generated by the sales of Federal Duck Stamps goes directly to purchase or lease wetland habitat for protection in the National Wildlife Refuge System. That’s some serious set-asides. The official literature states that since 1934, the sales of Federal Duck Stamps have generated more than $700 million, which has been used to help purchase or lease over 5.2 million acres of waterfowl habitat in the U.S.

So why won’t I be buying a Duck Stamp?

No one can argue that $700 million towards wetland conservation isn’t a fabulous feat of public philanthropy. These protected lands benefit entire ecosystems of organisms, not just ducks and geese. Further, if you live in proximity to refuges that charge admission, that $15 fee seems seriously economical. My problem with the Duck Stamp program lies in how birders and other outdoor enthusiasts are lumped in with hunters. It’s easy for the government to acknowledge that birders are important consumers of the Duck Stamp and contributors to conservation. In fact, on the USFWS page for Duck Stamp constituents specifically addressed to birders, they say:

Refuge visitation is now approaching 40 million people per year, and according to recent USFWS figures, more than 80 percent of these visitors engage in wildlife watching, specifically birds. Just as importantly, these visitors are part of the millions of Americans increasingly interested in wild birds and birding.

Yet, when it comes time to draft important conservation legislation or plan the creation a 21st Century Youth Conservation Corps, we non-extractive wildlife enthusiasts are forgotten in favor of the hook and bullet club. Apparently, when it comes time to calculate the financial contributions of the different sectors of outdoor enthusiasts, only hunters and anglers put up worthwhile cash, in part through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses.

The Duck Stamp is a hunting license. It seems to me that hunters are credited for the funds flowing from the sale of said stamp despite the major push among American birders to purchase it for conservation. Maybe the birds really are what matter and my partisan interests nothing but petty griping. Maybe proponents of the Duck Stamp can explain to me (in the comments please!) how the interests of birders are so intimately intertwined with those of hunters that their lobbyists can completely represent us in the corridors of power. I can’t help but think we as a group are, through our wholesale support of the Duck Stamp instead of pursuing a more appropriate refuge access pass, squandering possibly our best opportunity to establish the financial contributions American birders and wildlife watchers make to conservation.

Plus, this year’s stamp includes a Long-tailed Duck next to a hunting decoy. Not only is that in poor taste for a program that alleges to represent the more peaceful parties in wildfowl conservation, but I see enough oldsquaw hunting around here without being reminded of it on my refuge pass!

Tags: duck stamp, hunting

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About the Author


Mike is a leading authority in the field of standardized test preparation, but what he really aspires to be is a naturalist. Besides founding 10,000 Birds and I and the Bird, Mike has also created a number of other entertaining sites and resources, particularly the Nature Blog Network.

20 Responses to “Time to Buy a Duck Stamp… or Not”

  1. Sounds like maybe a split would be in order – a duck stamp and a “birders stamp”.

  2. It is high time there was a conservation alternative to the Pittman-Robertson Act. Namely, a tax similar to the guns and ammunition tax that helps finance National Wildlife Refuges and state game lands.

    In other words, an excise tax on binoculars, hiking boots, mountain bikes, spotting scopes, etc.

    Birders and hikers have negative effects on wildlife and induce wear and tear on refuge roads, dikes and other infrastructure and habitat.

    It is high time we were allowed to shoulder the load – rather than hunters footing the bill (and therefore getting all the consideration in terms of habitat management and priorities).

    A prior effort fell victim to Republican Congresspeople’s “no new taxes” mantra.

    But I think birders and nature enthusiasts would gladly spend 2% of the purchase price to carry their own weight and also get more consideration from land managers.

  3. A split would be one option, or birders could simply pay the entrance fee at refuges that have them and buy things in their gift shops. Any hypothetical birder lobbyists could then point to those entrance fees as a sign of birder funding for conservation and refuge operation. There is a lot more to land conservation than simply buying it, there’s also a need to clear invasives, regulate water levels, etc, and I’m sure the entrance fees help with that to some extent.

    Of course, to have influence with Congress and the Interior Dept., it helps to have lobbyists pressing the cause. Many wildlife organizations do have lobbyists; maybe the ABA should set up a DC office, too. They would be better positioned to push for things like inclusion of birders in the Youth Conservation Corps than other organizations, whose lobbyists are tied up with getting a climate bill passed or preventing corporate land grabs on federal properties.

  4. I think tai haku’s suggestion is a great one. There’d be large start-up costs though. In the meantime, maybe the obvious thing to do is start a campaign to encourage non-hunters to donate the equivalent sum to conservation organisations that aim to conserve and increase bird habitats? Anyone have suggestions? Mike: maybe you could collate and post a list of appropriate organisations?

  5. I could get behind an excise tax on birding and hiking equipment to finance the refuge system (and maybe national parks, too?). It might be tricky to decide what to include and what to exclude (field guides? trail running shoes? warm socks?), but I’m sure one could be implemented.

    Regarding pohanginapete’s suggestion, a lot of refuges have Friends organizations that help keep the refuge running by leading educational activities, pulling weeds, clearing trash, planting native species, and all sorts of similar activities. Supporting these is an easy way to support refuges without buying a Duck Stamp. There are also a lot of nonprofits that do land conservation work, perhaps too many to compile a comprehensive list. Just in New Jersey, I know that NJ Audubon, the Nature Conservancy, and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation all purchase and administer preserves, and I think there may be others.

  6. Mike – I don’t want to comment on alternatives right now, but I agree 100% with you about the reasons NOT to buy a duck stamp – and putting a beautiful bird like an LTD next to a decoy is disgusting. Thanks for posting!

  7. Only problem with taxing things birders use,is most of these items are also used by hunters/fishermen also,and probably in bigger numbers than birders use them. (Bins/hiking boots etc)
    So again the “hook and bullet” club will get the credit.

    Say didn’t we have a similar discussion last year

  8. so doing nothing is better than purchasing a stamp that helps to fund wildlife preserves? hmmmm. You’ll never get your voice heard that way. Venting on a bulletin board doesn’t change policy.

  9. @Sue: This is not, ahem, a “bulletin board.” It is a blog. And Mike’s point is that birder’s voices aren’t being heard because we are, by buying the stamp, just adding to the voice of hunters.

  10. I can see this quickly turning into a Hunting vs Non-Hunting debate, and regardless of what your views are on Hunting it is a ‘Sport’.

    More often than not Hunters (specifically Duck Hunters) are on the same side as bird watchers when it comes to habitat protection. In some states that don’t have strong governmental environmental organizations, hunting organizations lead the way in habitat management and protection. Keep in mind that Hunters are heavily regulated (some will still say no enough regulation!), while bird watchers are free to practice their sport year round.

    Also the gun lobby is very powerful (cue image of Charleston Heston holding a gun and saying “From my cold dead hands!”), organizations such as the NRA go after any and all legistlation that would curtail what gun owners can do, including environmental legistlation. Birdwatchers as a whole do not contribue at much money politically as Hunters.

    Encouraging people not to buy Duck Stamps is a mistake in my opinion, until the climate changes in Washington or Bird watchers become more of a powerful lobbying force, Hunters will always get favor when it comes to environmental legislation.

  11. The excellent suggestions offered here are encouraging!

    Pete, I like your idea. At the same time, I suspect private and indirect financial support for refuges is already coming from birders. This doesn’t address the problem of our contributions going unnoticed or unrecognized when it’s time to shape policy.

    Wes, you’re probably right. This particular bee in my bonnet starts buzzing any time I see widescale support for the Duck Stamp from influential birders. It seemed high time for another tilt at the windmill.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure you’re right that hunters and anglers are wider consumers of optics, etc. than birders and wildlife watchers. Hunter numbers are on a steep decline while those of birders seem to be on the rise. And if we called that tax a U.S. wildlife watching tax, then the hook and bullet contributions can pad the birders’ bucks for a change!

    Sue, my premise is that birders and wildlife watchers across the country already do plenty. Unfortunately, these contributions occur on individual and local levels, thus failing to leverage the influence or impact of the duck stamp, hunting orgs like Ducks Unlimited, the Pittman-Robertson tax etc. As a group, we need to pool those resources in a recognizable way.

    And no, Will, this is definitely not an attack on hunters. I have nothing but respect for the political acumen of various hunting organizations. But while the Venn diagram of hunter interests and birder interests overlap to a certain extent, they are undeniably different in many respects.

    So my point, if I wasn’t clear enough, is that birders and wildlife watchers need their own stamp equivalent and their own lobbyists.

  12. Another issue that needs addressing is that the duck stamp program doesn’t necessarily fund “wildlife preserves”, it funds a very specific group of wildlife preserves that are attractive to hunters, leaving others in sort of a lurch.

    Preserving wetlands is great and should be commended, but eastern old-growth forests need preservation too, and tall-grass prairies and deserts and boreal forests and mesquite scrubland and the whole range of ecosystems across the continent. By playing into this obvious myth that the only habitats worth protecting are those that bird hunters use, we miss out on other opportunities to help these others that are pretty hard up for cash these days, and for which wildlife watchers also have an obvious interest.

    I think other Nate’s suggestion is the best one, and I think birders (and others) would consider it a badge of pride to drop a little extra if it means we have a bigger say in where the cash goes.

  13. I am with Charlie: alternatives left aside, this year’s duck stamp is disgusting and clearly demonstrates what a duck stamp really is: NOT primarily a tool for nature conservation but for the management of hunting grounds, with nature conservation being the (desired or not) side-effect.

  14. A point to consider is that, while 80% of the buyers of Duck Stamps are birders, the numbers of duck and goose hunters are in a slow but steady decline. In the foreseeable future, observers may be the sole support for Federal acquisition of set-aside lands.
    50 years ago, when I was young, seeing a Canada goose was an event, something one shared with friends, faminly, and anyone who could be made to listen.
    Certainly gunners didn’t make it possible to fall over Canada geese any time you leave the house.
    This is one of the FEW government programs that works,with results you can see and appreciate. Unite and celebrate, and buy a Duck Stamp.

  15. @Doug – It’s probably too late for this now, but where did you find that info about 80% of Duck Stamp buyers are birders? That’s a pretty useful tidbit of info for advocating for non-game interests for Duck Stamp funds.

  16. [...] some people I have a great deal of respect for as birders, conservationists, and thinkers have argued persuasively that non-hunters shouldn’t buy duck stamps, even though there’s no disputing the money goes to purchase valuable wildlife [...]

  17. [...] protection. That’s an entirely different and complicated post. But, I’ll refer you to the 10,000 birds website for an interesting discussion on habitat funds management, and the topic of “should birders buy [...]

  18. [...] refuges. Others have decided not to purchase duck stamps for the very reasons I describe.  As Mike at the 10,000 Birds blog writes: “When it comes time to draft important conservation legislation or plan the creation [...]

  19. [...] Stamp? By Mike • November 9, 2011 • No comments yetShareTweetI’ve never hid my disdain for how the Duck Stamp skews perceptions of who uses and supports public refuges in the United [...]

  20. February 28th and 29th is a Teaming with wildlife fly in to Washinton DC. This was the fastest growing coalition of organizations ever. Teaming with wildlife originally was patterned affter the pittman robertson act and would be administered the same but would put a tax on bird seed hiking knapsacks, binoculars etc. The birdseed companies were against it. R.E.I. was against it. This morphed into a royalty from oil drilling. Now it is a grant program for wildlife. The birdseed recreation gear is the best way to raise revenues but since there is such a struggle the Migratory Bird Conservation Stamp is the best way we can all give to wildlife, by purchasinf habitat. What is needed is a NATIONAL TRACKING SYSTEM that tells who the purchaser is…bird or wildlife observer, photographer, educator, artist, researcher kayaker. The duck stamp legislatively is the only revenue generator sanctioned by congress that we can all use. We need to be counted for who we are not lumped in and lost. Please buy a Migratory Bird Conservation Stamp. Call USFWS and demand that a tracking system be formulated immediately. Ask them to tease out past years purchasers. Tell them that the stamps need to be of migratory birds in natural settings so you can happily tell your friends who do not hunt to also purchase one. But PLEASE PLEASE BUY these conservation stamps and JOIN the coalition Teaming with Wildlife at www.teaming.com

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