After Controversy, the Duck Stamp Contest May No Longer Require Hunting Scenes

The Biden administration signaled it wants to overturn a rule change that upset artists and fueled worries about fewer dollars for protecting habitat.

Update August 24, 2021: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a final rule that will overturn the Trump administration’s pro-hunting changes to the duck stamp contest, beginning with the 2022 competition.

The Biden administration has drawn a bead on a controversial policy that required artists to include hunting images in their submissions to a wildlife art competition. 

Last May, the Trump administration changed the rules of the federal duck stamp contest. The duck stamp is not a postage stamp but a type of permit that waterfowl hunters are required to purchase and that other supporters of conservation voluntarily buy. The government has used funds raised through stamp sales to acquire and protect some 6 million acres of habitat at more than 300 national wildlife refuges since 1934. Wildlife artists compete each year for the honor of having their artwork featured on the following year’s stamp. 

Those rule changes, which Audubon first reported in 2019, made “Celebrating our Waterfowl Hunting Heritage” the permanent theme of the art contest. They also required that each entry include hunting imagery, and that all five contest judges have experience with waterfowl hunting. To comply with the new mandates, artists in last year’s competition painted empty shotgun shells and duck calls floating in the water. The scenes looked to some observers like litter and ignited a public outcry over the perceived politicization of what had been a wholesome, beloved corner of the art world.

Faced with that blowback, the government is now working to scrap the hunting requirements. A preliminary notice published online indicates that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) plans to reinstate the previous rules, beginning with the 2022 contest. A spokesperson for the FWS declined to comment but cautioned that the agency has not yet formally moved forward with a proposal. 

Throwing out the pro-hunting mandate would give artists back their creative freedom, says Rebekah Knight, who took second place in the 2016 contest and won the junior duck stamp competition in 2006. “It is relieving to think that I might not have to struggle to compose a design within the confines of this limiting rule that requires the inclusion of hunting elements,” Knight said in an email. “I enjoy seeing an occasional decoy or boat in the background, but having those things forced into the image every year would get very old.”

The Biden administration has taken aim at many other Trump-era environmental policies that are more significant than the rules for an art competition. This month alone, the administration suspended all oil and gas activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, began the process of restoring protections for endangered species, and took steps to overturn a rule that left many wetland and stream habitats without protection from development and pollution. 

Still, more than artistic freedom is at stake in the contest rule change, conservationists say. With fewer Americans hunting, the pool of people who must buy a duck stamp—from which 98 cents of every dollar spent goes directly to protecting wetlands—is shrinking. Recognizing that trend, the FWS has made an effort to encourage birders, hikers, and other outdoors enthusiasts to buy a duck stamp to support conservation. Hunters previously made up the vast majority of sales, but by 2018 more than 1.5 million people bought duck stamps while around 1 million people hunted waterfowl

Critics of the rule change argued that requiring hunting scenes—which were never prohibited—threatened to drive a wedge between hunters and other nature lovers, who despite their differences share a stake in and commitment to conservation, and could depress funding for wildlife habitat. “Re-branding the duck stamp as only for hunters is a terrible mistake, and will hurt both duck hunting and federal waterfowl conservation efforts,” one hunter wrote in a public comment last year. “We firmly believe that emphasis of hunting themes on stamps will lead to less interest in the artwork and less support of the stamp by the growing number of non-consumptive public and stamp collectors and will ultimately lead to fewer stamps purchased and a reduction in revenue for refuge acquisitions,” the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge commented.

It’s important to Knight, who not only paints waterfowl but also hunts them, that the broader public recognize that hunters are committed conservationists who contribute major funding to protect natural areas. But she maintains there are better ways to recognize that heritage than through mandatory depictions of shotguns or camouflage. “I hope the duck stamp returns to the way it was, so that we artists can go back to depicting these beautiful birds the way hunters like to see them—in a realistic, natural setting with minimal human elements,” she said. “In my opinion, the best way to celebrate our hunters is to shine the spotlight on the birds they are passionate about.