NEW RICHMOND -- It was a mid-November afternoon and I was raking leaves when I heard the first honk.

I had heard it all before, first one honk, then another, then 10 more, 20, except this time, they just kept coming, and coming. As I turned my gaze skyward, the first skein was flying in low and loud right over my head. Against the grey sky, as far as I could see, filling the sky seemingly all the way to the horizon were endless V’s, flying, honking, spread out in every direction, thousands of Canada geese.

The sky felt almost black and the sound, the sound was deafening. In that moment, nature was a physical force, drowning out my thoughts, wings beating like infinite heartbeats overhead. I felt humbled by the enormity of the moment, privileged to witness the majesty of it all.

The sound of geese on a cold November afternoon is an iconic sound in parts around here just east of the Mississippi Flyway.

Whenever I experience an overwhelming display by Mother Nature like the one that afternoon, I wonder if it might have been more magnificent in my grandfather’s sky? Was there a time when that sky might have held even more geese?

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That question speaks to the conservation legacy we will leave for our children and grandchildren.

The co-winner of the 2020 Wisconsin Junior Duck Stamp Contest Best of Show was Lauren Denu, also a senior at Oregon High School, for her artistic impression of a drake mallard in snow. Photo C/O U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The co-winner of the 2020 Wisconsin Junior Duck Stamp Contest Best of Show was Lauren Denu, also a senior at Oregon High School, for her artistic impression of a drake mallard in snow. Photo C/O U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Congress enacted the Migratory Bird Conservation Act in 1929. The legislation created the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission responsible for approving land purchases, leases and easements recommended by the secretary of the interior for the purpose of preserving and restoring habitat beneficial to migratory birds and other wildlife.

The Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act also known as the Federal Duck Stamp Act signed by President Rosevelt in 1934 also established the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. The Duck Stamp Act became the primary means by which the fund was initially funded.

Today, in addition to Duck Stamp proceeds, the fund also incorporates funds appropriated from Wetlands Loan Act, import duties on arms and ammunition, and receipts from the sale of refuge admission permits. Those funds are provided to the Secretary of the Interior for the acquisition of migratory bird refuges known as Waterfowl Production Areas, primarily in the Prairie Pothole Region of the U.S.

The 2019-2020 winner of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest is a painting of a single drake wood duck and decoy by Minnesota artist Scott Storm. Photo C/O U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The 2019-2020 winner of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest is a painting of a single drake wood duck and decoy by Minnesota artist Scott Storm. Photo C/O U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

When making decisions about what purchases to approve, the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission takes into consideration a number of factors including how a particular acquisition fits with the North American Waterfowl Management Plan as well as more regionalized conservation plans depending on where the purchase is located like the Wisconsin Waterfowl Habitat Strategy Plan.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website, “Ninety-eight cents of every duck stamp dollar goes directly into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund to purchase or lease wetlands and wildlife habitat for inclusion in the National Wildlife Refuge System.”

At the time of its inception in 1934, a duck stamp cost $1. The last time the price for a stamp went up was in 2014 when the government raised it to its current price of $25.

The U.S. Post Office printed, issued and sold the stamp exclusively until 1976, when, federal legislation authorized the sale of stamps at retail locations other than the Post Office. Recognizing the expanding public interest in conservation and in particular bird ecology, the same legislation also changed the name of the stamp from the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp to the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp to encourage participation by a wider audience than just hunters.

The co-winner of the 2020 Wisconsin Junior Duck Stamp Contest Best of Show was Eden Meidl, a senior at Oregon High School, for her hyperrealism rendition of green-winged teal. Photo C/O U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The co-winner of the 2020 Wisconsin Junior Duck Stamp Contest Best of Show was Eden Meidl, a senior at Oregon High School, for her hyperrealism rendition of green-winged teal. Photo C/O U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Prestigious contests

The first stamp issued in 1934 featured a brush and ink illustration by Jay N. “Ding” Darling. Darling was a famous cartoonist and served as chief of the Biological Survey, a precursor to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, from 1934-1936. According to the USFWS website, it was Darling’s idea to sell duck stamps to raise money to purchase wetlands. A total of 635,001 stamps were sold nationwide the first year.

Every year since then, the USFWS has sponsored the prestigious Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest to select the art to be used on that year’s stamp. The national contest is open to any U.S. resident 18 years or older. The art must meet a number of specific criteria and is judged by a panel of five judges with backgrounds in art, stamps and waterfowl.

Wisconsin artists have a long-winning tradition when it comes to the Federal Duck Stamp including wins by Walter E. Bohl in 1943-44; Owen J. Gromme in 1945-46; Martin R. Murk in 1977-78; and Arthur G. Anderson in 1987-88.

Minnesota artists have captured the title numerous times as well including a record 13 times between the three Hautman brothers, Robert, Joseph and James, starting with Jim’s first win in 1989.

The 2021-2022 winner of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest is Delaware artist Richard Clifton. His painting features a single lesser scaup drake.

The USFWS began the Junior Duck Stamp Conservation and Design Program in 1989 as an extension of the original program. The junior program offers an art-and-science-based curriculum focused on wetland and waterfowl conservation available to students K-12.

The national Junior Duck Stamp art contest began in 1993. The winning illustration featured a painting of a Redhead duck by 16-year-old artist Jason Parsons from Canton, Ill.. This year’s winner is a painting of a wood duck by Madison Grimm, 13, of South Dakota.

The 2021-2022 winner of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest is a painting of a single lesser scaup drake by Delaware artist Richard Clifton. Photo C/O U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The 2021-2022 winner of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest is a painting of a single lesser scaup drake by Delaware artist Richard Clifton. Photo C/O U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Selling well here

Over the years the number of stamps sold has varied considerably. Since the beginning of the program, residents of Wisconsin and Minnesota have consistently been in the top 10 in purchases of stamps. From a high of 160,435 stamps sold during the 1971-972 season, Wisconsin has experienced annual sales that average about half that number over a decade from 2002-2012, ranging from 87,740 in 2002-2003 to 64,082 in 2011-2012, the last season for which figures were available. During that same period, Minnesota topped out at 179,624 in 1971-72 and over the decade from 2002-2012 has ranged between 141,644 in 2009-2010 to 95,332 in the 2011-2012 season.

Since Darling produced the first Federal Duck Stamp in 1934, the program has become the most successful conservation program in U. S. history raising more than $950 million. Those funds have been used to purchase and lease nearly 6 million acres of habitat as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System to protect birds and other wildlife.

Visit the Federal Duck Stamp Gallery to view the winning illustrations for every stamp since 1934.