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USFWS Scientists Hope to Save the Duck Stamp - ‘By the Ducks, of the Ducks and for the Ducks’

BISMARCK, N.D.—Ron Reynolds is on a mission to save the federal duck stamp, “by the ducks, of the ducks and for the ducks.”

No, the 70-year-old duck stamp isn’t about to be placed on the endangered species list. But according to an article in the winter issue of Delta Waterfowl magazine, increased competition for funding has resulted in fewer duck stamp dollars being spent on ducks and their breeding grounds.

“Some bird-conservation initiatives that have not received much funding are looking to the duck stamp program as a source of money,” says Reynolds, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Habitat and Population Evaluation Team (HAPET) headquartered here. “It was actually suggested that we replace the duck on the duck stamp with a non-game bird. We need to support other initiatives, but not at the expense of a program built by duck hunters.”

The federal duck stamp has been around since 1934 when Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling came up with the concept selling stamps to duck hunters and using the proceeds to secure critical waterfowl habitat.

Darling’s Dirty ‘30s-inspired brainchild would become one of wildlife management’s greatest success stories. Going into the current waterfowl season, duck stamp dollars had secured 5.2 million acres of waterfowl habitat, more than half of that in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR).

Focusing duck stamp dollars on the PPR is critical says Lloyd Jones, who heads up the Region 6 Refuge Division of the Fish and Wildlife Service. “If you want to increase the mallard population, there’s only one place to get the job done, and that’s on the prairie breeding grounds,” Jones says.

“Over 90 percent of the waterfowl habitat already protected on the U.S. side of the breeding grounds was secured with duck stamp dollars. The rest is a combination of other public lands and habitat acquired by state agencies and conservation organizations.”

Reynolds and Jones say that if raising ducks is the goal, the majority of duck stamp dollars should be coming to Region 6 and specifically to North Dakota, South Dakota and eastern Montana, where 60 percent US-produced ducks nest.

“If you look at the factors that cause mallard populations to fluctuate, 91 percent of those factors occur here on the breeding grounds,” says Jones.

That’s why Reynolds and Jones developed the Prairie Pothole Region Waterfowl Production Area Conservation Strategy, a science-based evaluation of how much habitat is necessary to “ensure the long-term viability of waterfowl populations in the US Prairie Pothole Region (PPR).”

What the scientists discovered is that sustaining the current level of production on the U.S. side of the region will require securing another 1.4 million acres of wetlands and another 10.4 million acres of grasslands.

The price tag in today’s dollars to achieve that goal is a whopping $1.4 billion. At current funding levels, Jones estimates it will take 155 years to protect the wetlands and 406 years to secure the grasslands necessary to guarantee current duck production levels into the future.

The Region 6 office received good news earlier this year when FWS Director Steve Williams announced that 50 percent of all duck stamp dollars will be dedicated to the PPR states, a significant increase from recent levels. While conservationists gave that move a standing ovation, many hope funding levels for the breeding grounds will go even higher.

Rob Olson, president of Delta Waterfowl, says sportsmen nationwide should support efforts to bring more duck stamp money to the prairies. “There’s no question that ducks need habitat across their range, but there’s only one place we can increase duck production, and that’s the prairies,” Olson says.

“We’re losing huge chunks of native habitat every year. We should be focusing our waterfowl conservation dollars here and now. It’s far less expensive to take easements on existing wetlands and grasslands than it will be to restore them once they’re gone.”

Jones concurs. “That $1.4 billion figure is today’s dollars,” he says. “It doesn’t take into account increases in land values driven by farm subsidies.”

It also doesn’t factor in the possible losses of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands. “For every acre that comes out of CRP,” says Reynolds, “we have to add an acre to the grasslands we’ll need to protect.”