The paintings submitted for this year’s federal duck stamp contest feature familiar images of wildlife art: A Cinnamon Teal bobs on a mountain lake. Two Brant tuck in to land in coastal chop. A placid pair of Red-breasted Mergansers float side by side, their jaunty crests aglow in early morning light.
But a closer look at the contest entries reveals other, less expected details. In scene after scene, wooden duck calls—which hunters use to lure in the birds—drift along the water or rest in the reeds. In several others, empty plastic shotgun shells litter the shallows and the shore.
This unusual abundance of hunting paraphernalia is the result of the Trump administration’s recent rewrite of the rules for the annual competition sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Unrelated to the Postal Service, the federal duck stamp is a permit required for hunting waterfowl. Each year’s contest determines the winning art that appears on the following year’s stamp. In May, the FWS changed the competition’s rules to make its permanent theme “celebrating our waterfowl hunting heritage.” And it added a requirement that all submitted artworks “must also include appropriate waterfowl hunting-related accessories or elements.”
To meet that new mandate, artists did what artists do: They got creative. Entries in the contest, which was livestreamed late last month, included scenes with retrieving dogs, duck blinds and decoys, hunters hunkered in boats, and even a trained Peregrine Falcon about to strike.
Some contestants resent the new requirement, however. Adding this extra layer of difficulty to an already demanding form, they say, leads artists to place unnatural elements into their scenes, potentially painting an unflattering image of hunting and undermining the rule’s purpose.
By Audubon’s count, at least 24 out of 138 artworks entered in this year’s contest featured either a duck call or shotgun shell in the water or strewn along its edge. That’s not surprising—there are only so many hunting-related details to choose from—but it’s disappointing, says Rebekah Knight, a Missouri wildlife artist who painted a Gadwall with a decoy in the background for the contest. “That looks to me like litter, and a lot of people said the same thing,” she says. “It’s just not good for trying to get the correct message across for people who don’t know anything about hunting.”
Wisconsin artist Greg Alexander had a different message in mind when he painted a shotgun shell near a Cinnamon Teal. Far from encouraging litter, he says he intended the shell as a reminder to hunters of their duty to clean up spent ammunition while afield. A hunter himself, Alexander supports the new requirement. Each entry still must highlight a live bird in its natural habitat, he notes, and the hunting element provides a reminder of the conservation funding that sportsmen and women provide through their purchases of licenses and taxed gear. “If it weren’t for sportsmen, hunters, and fishermen, we would be losing habitat right and left,” he says. “Why not support your constituency?”
However, many birders and other non-hunters purchase a duck stamp each year, as a FWS press release on this year’s contest noted. When Audubon first reported on the rule change, before it was formally proposed, artists and conservationists—including hunters—worried that it would alienate a big portion of annual duck stamp buyers and depress sales.
That would be a significant loss for conservation. The FWS uses revenue from stamp sales to acquire and protect wetland habitat that waterfowl and other wildlife need. Since 1934, the stamps have raised more than $1 billion to purchase some 6 million acres of habitat at more than 300 national wildlife refuges. Encouraging non-hunters to buy the stamps is especially important, critics of the rule change say, because hunting participation continues to dwindle; just 4 percent of Americans aged 16 or older hunted in 2016, while 34 percent participated in wildlife watching.
Like many other entries in this year’s competition, the second- and third-place paintings, by, respectively, brothers and frequent contest winners Jim and Joe Hautman, featured intricate scenes with hunters and dogs in boats in the background. But capturing so much detail in the required 7-inch-by-10-inch format is a real challenge even for experienced artists, Jim Hautman says, and he understands why so many contestants painted a scene with what could be considered trash. “The easiest solution is to add a shotgun shell or a duck call to a portrait of a duck,” he said in an email. “As for the spent shells, unfortunately it happens. I try to pick my empties up, but I forget a lot too. I consider it litter, and not exactly the hunting heritage image we want to promote.”
Even the winner of this year’s competition, Delaware artist Richard Clifton, is no fan of the new requirement. Clifton’s artwork has graced about 50 of the annual duck stamps that some states issue, and he won the federal contest in 2006. But in all of those painting, he says, hunting elements have appeared only once or twice, and he doesn’t believe it should be mandatory. Hunters do sometimes lose duck calls on accident, he notes—the call he painted in the foreground of his winning scene of a lone Lesser Scaup drake represents one he found in a creek near his home—but they don’t really belong in a natural wildlife scene. “I’m a pretty big-time waterfowl hunter, and I don’t feel like it’s necessary,” he says. “I’d much rather see a straight-up duck painting.”
Clifton, who describes himself as a casual birder, prefers to paint scenes that focus on the beauty of birds themselves. He’s been happy to hear rumblings about the idea of a separate songbird stamp to raise conservation funds for other migratory birds. Maybe there will be a new contest. “I’d probably enter,” he says. “I can paint songbirds, too.”