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Duck Stamps, the Department of the Interior and us

March 13, 2009

This past Wednesday, new Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that the DoI has approved more that $26 million in grants to go towards protecting and restoring 200,000 acres of wetland habitat in the United States and Mexico. This is in addition to $11.5 million from the duck stamp program that will go toward restoration of wetlands in the chronically underfunded National Wildlife Refuge System. I don’t have to tell you that that’s some pretty substantial cheese thrown at wildlife resources, and on the surface it’s very exciting for wildlife advocates which, I assume, make up a sizable percentage of my regular readers. For a priority that has been as ignored as any in the last eight years it’s certainly exciting to see the change rhetoric backed up by real dollars in the pockets of wildlife programs. But is this money really going to help the bird populations that we birders are most concerned about?

Habitat degradation and loss is, without a doubt, the single most crucial issue facing endangered and non-endangered species. It’s bigger than climate change and it’s bigger than pollution, because when you limit species ability to move around to find suitable habitat you’re preventing them from self-adjusting to other issues, as many species have shown a remarkable ability to do. While focusing on wetlands certainly will likely have a broad positive effect on many species, what is clear is that restoration of wetlands as an apparent sole priority is done specifically for one constituent, the waterfowl hunter. And for many politicians looking to get the most bang for their buck, so to speak, speaking to hunters accomplishes the goal of appealing not only to that group, but in many cases boosting their “green” cred as well.

But protecting and restoring habitat only works when the right kind of habitat is protected and restored, and wetlands birds, specifically migratory waterfowl, are among those whose populations are actually increasing, up 11% from 1955 when populations were first censused (the most recent trend report is here (.pdf)). In fact several species of waterfowl, like Gadwall, Mallard, and Snow Geese, could rightly even be considered to be booming, and that’s great for the most part. And yet, when federal money is typically apportioned for wildlife it’s to these game animals that the funds are disproportionally allocated, and while their habitat is crucial and important and species-rich, it’s not necessarily the habitat that is most in need of restoration; but that which most needs restoration isn’t always the most attractive to our fellow users of pubic lands.

Which brings me to the Duck Stamp paradox, familiar in theory to many birders. By and large birders are ardent conservationists, and as such want to do right by positive habitat conservation efforts no matter who’s behind them. And so many birders support the Duck Stamp program that specifically seeks to protect and restore wetland habitat for migratory waterfowl. The program is great and I certainly don’t mean to ever suggest otherwise, but there’s a perception that such action by birders is overshadowed by that of hunters and their agendas, namely protecting only game habitat at the potential expense of habitat less attractive to waterfowl, upland game birds, and game mammals. In many cases, such habitat can be actively detrimental to the habitat needs of threatened non-game species, especially when that money that could be used elsewhere is being funneled to game species rather than rare species.

I’m not seeking to impugn hunters here, as it’s foolish to suggest that they haven’t done a lot for habitat conservation in previous generations, but much of that action has been in the form of not only the Duck Stamp program, but the progressive Pittman Robertson Act that levies a tax on hunting equipment that is specifically allotted for habitat protection. In that way hunters can passively support conservation initiatives and it goes without saying that having a way to quantitatively measure their impact goes a long way towards increasing their political footprint and capital. In that way the Duck Stamp program acts against us by lumping us with a group with similar, but still vitally different ends.

It’s an old song, but the time has certainly come for something similar for birding equipment and literature, and for a group as traditionally affluent as the birding community this is small price to pay, literally, for something that directly benefits our interests. So I was excited to hear of a program in Maine by which birders are able to support habitat conservation and preservation for specifically non-game species and advertise that fact with a metal band on your binoculars. It’s brilliant really, in a way that a Duck Stamp can’t be as few of us have hunting licenses on which to affix the stamp anyway.

With the declining population of hunters, such programs may be the future of wildlife conservation efforts, and will undoubtedly show, with real numbers, that birders should have a a place in the conservation table proportionate to our real impact and interests. And maybe next time, Salazar or his successor can brag about millions of dollars towards restoration of southern pine barrens or eastern deciduous old growth or short-grass prairie or any of the other crucial habitats that desperately need help but generally lack birds folks like to shoot at, with a smile on his face knowing that such actions are with the full backing of the American people.

Well, a birder can dream, can’t he?

  1. Rob Ripma permalink
    March 13, 2009 9:50 am

    Great to hear about the extra money for conservation. I hope that people will realize that its not just game animals taht need habitat protection. It sounds like the program in Maine is something other states should consider!

  2. Nate permalink
    March 13, 2009 11:20 am

    @Rob- I absolutely agree. I’d love to see my state do something like what’s going on in Maine, it’s a great idea. Hell, I’d even consider buying a Maine tag on principle even though I don’t get the direct benefit here in NC.

  3. Mike permalink
    March 13, 2009 1:17 pm

    I’m with you on this, Nate. In fact, I even go a step further and say that birders shouldn’t buy duck stamps strictly for conservation purposes. If you also hunt, that’s fine but otherwise you’re inflating the perceived influence of the hook and bullet club while diminishing the true contribution of birders and other recreational wildlife observers. Finally, an alternative has been offered and with hope, more are on the way.

  4. Rick permalink
    March 15, 2009 10:51 pm

    Another really good reason to buy Duck Stamps–97 cents on each dollar goes to habitat.

  5. Nate permalink
    March 16, 2009 10:56 am

    @mike- I definitely see and feel your concern. I think the effect hunters and fisherman in general has even been overstates because of things like Pittman Robertson. They give passively through a tax levied on their equipment and therefore are seen as having actively contributed.

    It’s great that the money is getting there, but let’s be honest, it’s not like it’s active participation, and shouldn’t be treated that way in all cases.

    @Rick- I think it’s great that money goes to conservation of habitat, but my point is that that money is going strictly to habitat with hunting interests, when so much habitat that doesn’t is not getting the same kind of necessary support.

  6. Jane permalink
    March 17, 2009 4:27 pm

    In Louisiana, we have a little known program called the “Louisiana Wild Stamp”. According to information on the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries website, it must have originally mimicked the Federal MBHC stamp in that it used wildlife art, but now is a simple computer form printout. This stamp can be used as an alternative to a hunting or fishing license for access to Refuges and Wildlife Mgt areas in the state. Proceeds from the stamp benefit the LA Natural Heritage program, which maintains databases for rare, threatened, and endangered species, and addresses conservation issues for these species (funding permitting). Unfortunately the LA Wild Stamp is not well known nor marketed. I know I get strange looks every year when I buy mine as most license vendors are not even familiar with it!

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