Waterfowl Restoration and Conservation
The early part of the twentieth century was a grim time for North American waterfowl. Man and nature combined to reduce once abundant populations to critically low levels. Over killing by professional and recreational hunters was primarily responsible for the initial downturn through the first decade. Hunting regulations were generally lax, with long seasons typically lasting from four to six months and excessive bag limits being the rule (see Figure 3).
“Market hunting” was then a legal and common practice, whereby professional hunters killed obscene numbers of waterfowl to sell to market (see Figure 4). Starting around 1910 a nation-wide farming boom in the U.S. precipitated the drainage of huge tracts of wetlands and resulted in the destruction of many prime waterfowl breeding areas. Feeding and rest areas important to migrating waterfowl were also negatively affected.
Waterfowl restoration and conservation soon became prevailing topics for discussion. With the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the federal government accepted responsibility for the protection of migratory waterfowl in the United States. In the 1920s conservation leaders, including Connecticut Senator Frederick Walcott, promoted the idea of federal waterfowl management areas (Madson, 1994). Like the federal refuges developed in the past, the primary purpose of the areas would be to provide much needed habitat, food and protection for breeding and migrating waterfowl. In contrast to the single-purpose refuges, however, the waterfowl management areas envisioned by Walcott and others would serve society in multiple ways.
For example, it was proposed that portions of the areas could be opened for public hunting at appropriate times of the year. Although some might question the ethics involved in permitting hunting on a conservation area, it would actually be consistent with the best interest of waterfowl to have as much harvesting of the resource as possible take place in a highly regulated environment. By increasing the utility of conservation areas for a broader spectrum of the citizenry, it would be easier to win support and secure funding. The waterfowl management area concept quickly received widespread support and funding became the next issue.
Many conservation leaders, including Walcott, favored the idea of a “national hunting stamp” which had been proposed by George A. Lawyer (Dolin and Dumaine, 2000). Lawyer was employed by the Bureau of Biological Survey (now known as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service). He held the titles of Inspector, Migratory Game Law from 1916 to 1918 and Chief U.S. Game Warden from 1918 to 1926. In these roles he traveled the country gathering data on migratory birds. He sketched a proposed design for the first federal stamp in the 1920s that was heavily influenced by a California hunting license he was issued in 1919 (see Figure 5).
The national stamp idea, however, encountered opposition from those who thought it would be infringing on the states’ rights to license hunters. In 1925 a committee was formed by state conservation leaders to look into an alternative to the hunting stamp. The committee recommended an excise tax on firearms and ammunition. Although receiving support from More Game Birds In America, the forerunner to Ducks Unlimited, the idea soon had to be put aside when Congress repealed all excise taxes (Madson, 1994).
As arguments over funding waged through the 1920s, the need for additional waterfowl areas became increasingly urgent. A decade of lower-than-normal rainfall was followed in the late 1920s by the onset of a severe drought. Some of the most important breeding areas remaining in the U.S. went completely dry and waterfowl production was extremely low. Due in large part to the efforts of Senator Peter Norbeck of South Dakota, the Migratory Bird Conservation Act was passed in 1929. This act basically called for the federal government to live up to the responsibility it had accepted in 1918, in part by developing the waterfowl management areas to offset the effects of drainage and drought on waterfowl habitat (McBride, 1984).
The devastating drought and subsequent Dust Bowl lasted through the first half of the 1930s. A side effect of the drought was widespread botulism which was born in stagnant lakes and resulted in the loss of additional hundreds of thousands of birds (Pacific Waterfowl Flyway Report Number Two, May 1948). Pressure to secure funding for the waterfowl areas was mounting. Senator Walcott was instrumental in the formation of the Senate Special Committee on the Conservation of Wildlife Resources.
In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed J.N. Ding Darling head of the Bureau of Biological Survey. With Darling’s assistance, the committee helped to finally win approval for a hunting stamp. The bill passed through Congress on March 10, 1934. On March 16, President Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act into law. Darling was selected to design the first stamp which has become known as RW1 (for Revenue Waterfowl ) and he was the first person allowed to purchase stamps on August 22, 1934. Stamps went on sale to the general public two days later (see Figure 6).