For American wildlife artists, there’s no greater honor than winning the duck stamp contest sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The multi-day event brings together painters from across the country for the federal government’s only juried art competition. With its friendly rivalries, elimination rounds, and live audience, it’s like The Joy of Painting meets American Idol.
Each year’s winning artwork lands not on a postage stamp—though it looks like one, is around the same size, and is coveted by stamp collectors—but on the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, known informally as the duck stamp, a $25 license for waterfowl hunting. Ninety-eight cents of every dollar spent on the stamps is used to buy or lease waterfowl habitat. Since its inception in 1934, the program has raised more than $1 billion to protect 6 million acres on 300 national wildlife refuges.
Waterfowl hunters are the only ones required to buy the stamp, but they aren’t the only ones who do. Along with collectors, many other outdoor enthusiasts make a voluntary purchase to support conservation. “Birders and wildlife photographers have played a key role in helping to generate these important monies for habitat protection,” a FWS web page says, proclaiming that the stamp is “Not Just for Ducks or Hunters.”
But despite such inclusive language, the agency plans to make hunting the mandatory focus of all future duck stamp contests. It’s a shift that artists and former FWS officials say could alienate non-hunters and deter them from buying a stamp, shrinking an important pot of money for wildlife conservation.
In a brief notice published online, the FWS says it will propose new contest rules that require artists to include “one or more waterfowl hunting specific elements or a waterfowl hunting scene as part of the design” in 2020 and beyond. And they call for all five contest judges each year to have “a background and understanding of waterfowl hunting.”
Since the agency created the contest in 1949 after initially producing the stamp in-house, only occasionally have contest winners featured hunting images. To recognize the role hunters play in conservation, the agency in 2018 adopted the one-time theme of “Celebrating our Waterfowl Hunting Heritage.” (Artist Scot Storm won that competition with his portrait of a Wood Duck and a decoy floating ghostlike in the background, which will be featured on the 2019-2020 stamp that goes on sale in June.) The proposed changes would make that year’s theme and contest rules permanent.
The FWS plans to formally put forth the changes in July, with a public comment period before it issues a final rule, says agency spokeswoman Vanessa Kauffman. The proposal arose from then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s 2017 order to "support and expand hunting and fishing," along with other recreation on public lands, Kauffman says.
The conservation group Ducks Unlimited, like others Audubon magazine contacted, was unaware of the proposal, according to communications manager Tucker Nelson. While the group’s membership is 90 percent hunters, “DU encourages everyone, whether they hunt or not, to purchase a duck stamp,” she says.
There’s no doubt that hunters play a major role in the North American model of wildlife conservation. They have an inherent interest in maintaining healthy wildlife populations, and their license fees and taxes on hunting equipment make up the bulk of funding available to state wildlife agencies to protect and manage habitat.
But the number of hunters is falling fast while other outdoor pursuits, such as birding and photography, are on the upswing. In 2016, just 4 percent of Americans hunted, while 34 percent participated in wildlife watching, according to the FWS. Those changing demographics have spurred efforts to promote the duck stamp to non-hunters as an easy way to get involved in conservation, with the perk that it doubles as a free pass to any refuge that charges an entrance fee. The FWS has led that charge in the recent past; in 2016, the agency proposed a rule change to include non-game birds on duck stamps to grow the audience for the program.
Hunters made up the overwhelming majority of duck stamp sales before efforts to expand the program’s reach began in earnest, says Bill Hartwig, a former director of the National Wildlife Refuge system and of the FWS realty office that buys land for conservation with duck stamp dollars. But by 2017, FWS figures show, there were just over 1 million active waterfowl hunters nationwide, and about 1.5 million duck stamps sold. “It became more of a stamp for wildlife, in my opinion, and I think we made quite a bit of progress,” Hartwig says. “This will set us back. If we're trying to get more people interested, then telling people this stamp is only for hunters is not going to help.”
Friends of the Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp, a nonprofit group that promotes the stamp as a conservation tool—and on whose board Hartwig serves—shares his concerns. The proposal “creates a wedge between the hunting and non-hunting communities,” the group wrote in a statement to Audubon magazine. “This moves us in the entirely wrong direction.” Instead of a permanent hunting motif, the group says the FWS should consider rotating themes, such as a focus on sea ducks like the Long-tailed Duck to draw attention to their declining numbers, or on cavity-nesting species like the Bufflehead to highlight the conservation value of nest boxes.
Likewise, Dan Ashe, who led the FWS in the Obama administration, says a hunting theme risks turning off the much larger pool of non-hunters who enjoy the outdoors and might want to support conservation. “I don't see it as supportive of where the community has been trying to go for a long time, and where we need to go,” he says.
Ashe, himself a duck hunter, also says he doesn’t understand the proposed requirement that contest judges have hunting knowledge. “I think I’d probably make a pretty poor judge,” he says. “I don't see why background and experience in waterfowl hunting is particularly relevant. Probably more important is you want people with a background and appreciation of art.”
The FWS doesn't expect the rule changes to dampen enthusiasm or depress entries, Kauffman says. But painting waterfowl accurately and realistically is already challenging, and artists say that including shotguns or camouflage will only make it harder, potentially limiting participation. “I don’t like it, as an artist, at all,” says Rebekah Knight, another board member of the friends group who won the junior duck stamp competition in 2006, took second place in the main contest with her Brant painting in 2016, and has participated every year since she was 13 years old. “I feel like that’s going to cut a lot of the artists. I don’t know if I would bother with it much longer.”
Five-time contest winner Jim Hautman—whose Minnesota family is so dominant in the competition that they became part of a duck-stamp subplot in the film Fargo—says that, as a duck hunter, he appreciates recognition for hunters’ role in conservation. But a permanent hunting theme? “Personally, I prefer not to have it be a requirement every year,” he says. “Sometimes it's nice to see a natural scene without any hint of mankind.”