Will the Duck Stamp Get a New Look?

A new plan will either upend or expand an 82-year-old hunting tradition.

The American duck stamp is doing a little soul-searching.

Each year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issues a stamp to go along with every hunter’s state permit. (The stamp essentially acts like a license in designated hunting areas.) To non-hunters, it’s more of a collector’s item—a small painted vignette featuring a species of migratory waterfowl. The stamps cost $25; all the proceeds are put toward acquiring new lands for wildlife preserves.

Since 1946, the paintings have been chosen through the widely touted Federal Duck Stamp Contest. (Here’s Audubon’s Brian Kevin with a behind-the-scenes look at the competition, and Connie Sanchez with the scoop on the judging process.) But back in February, with the hope of garnering more interest from birders and hunters alike, USFWS proposed a new idea that would change the format of the stamps. The agency no longer wants to feature only hunted fowl—ducks, geese, swans—but also wants to include other groups of birds, like hawks and herons, the New York Times reports. Artists would also be able to paint two species into one scene, as long as they live in the same habitat.

The plan has been met with mixed feelings from birders, hunters, and artists alike. In an interview with the Times, one artist said that adding a second species to the stamp "is going to make it more difficult to get [the] ideal image."

But the agency has its reasons for wanting to broaden the scope of the program. Stamp sales have dipped to about 1.5 million annually—less than 30 percent of those purchases are made by non-hunters. “The population of duck hunters, our main customers, is declining and aging,” Daniel M. Ashe, the director of USFWS,  told the Times.  “So we need to look at diversifying the customer base for the duck stamp.”

In this year’s competition, artists have the option of including a second, non-waterfowl species on their design. But as it stands, USFWS hasn’t made up its mind on permanently changing the rules. The question now is, which is more important: preserving a decades-long tradition or adapting to modern times?