Duck Stamp and Theoretical Wildlife Stamp

The number of people who hunt waterfowl in the US has declined since the mid 1990s. This has resulted in a reduction of the number of duck stamps sold. Sales of duck stamps have funded the preservation of wetlands and other wildlife habitat, which in turn has supported an increase in waterfowl populations. This has benefited both the waterfowl hunters and everyone else who likes ducks and their kin. Historically, there has been a link between duck stamp sales and the duck population, with the causal link between stamp sales and duck numbers being the wildlife preservation areas supported by stamp revenues. However, since about 1990 this correlation has significantly weakened. The duck populations seem to be up, and doing well, despite the drop in stamp sales. But the drop in stamp sales has meant a possible reduction in wild lands preservation efforts. Eventually, the pigeons, as it were, may come home to roost and the waterfowl and other wildlife, as well as hunters and bird watchers, will be sitting ducks.

A study examining this relationship was recently published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin (full reference below). From the abstract of the study:

Current waterfowl populations provide liberal hunting seasons, but waterfowl hunter numbers have declined since the mid–1990s. We hypothesized that trends in waterfowl hunter numbers, as indicated by Federal Migratory Bird Hunting Conservation Stamp (duck stamp) sales, have become independent of breeding duck populations, and we assess the impacts on habitat conservation. The relationship between duck breeding populations and duck stamp sales changed between 1955–1994 (r 1?4 0.81) and 1995–2008 (r 1?4 0.29). Based on the 1955–1994 relationship between total duck breeding population and duck stamp sales, about 600,000 fewer duck stamps than expected were sold annually during 1995–2008. This equates to a loss of US$126 million in gross revenue and from 42,500 to 80,900 fewer hectares of wetland and upland hectares protected. The current relationship between duck breeding population and duck stamp sales suggests future estimates of waterfowl hunters will decrease below 1 million when the breeding population declines below 32 million. Assuming current trends, expected losses of duck stamp revenues may result in an additional 2,800–13,900 unprotected ha/year if the duck breeding population declines to historical lows. Development and implementation of programs and policies that maintain or increase participation in waterfowl hunting will assist in habitat conservation efforts and continue waterfowl hunting traditions.

Here is the key graph from the paper, which clearly supports what is being asserted:

Duck Stamp Sales and Duck Population No Longer correlate

ResearchBlogging.orgIt is not entirely clear why duck hunting is becoming less popular, and that was not a focus of the study, but the authors speculate that hunting levels will continue to decline owing to a number of social and economic factors.

According to the study’s lead author, Mark Vrtiska of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, “You may think the fall in hunters would be good news for ducks, but ironically it is leading to less money for the conservation of their habitat. Federal funding for conservation is dependent on the revenue raised by selling the duck stamps, a unique dynamic for wildlife managers in the United States. Up to 98% of money raised by the duck stamps is used to purchase or lease habitat within the National Wildlife Refuge system.”

The duck stamp program makes sense in that those who are using a resource are paying a good part of the cost of maintaining that resource. The down side, clearly, is that changes in behavior (in this case, hunting practices) can result in unintended and negative consequences. Indeed, hunters who are after pheasants or other game can hunt on a Federal Waterfowl Production Area, taking advantage of duck-stamp funded conservation efforts, without a duck stamp. And, of course, bird watchers are in a sense free-loading on the duck stamps as well.

As you probably know, there have been efforts recently to initiate another kind of stamp, a Wildlife Stamp, that might be purchased by bird watchers or others, the proceeds of which would go to a similar conservation effort. I asked Vriska what he thought about this idea. He told me, “ I think it would go a long way in filling that gap. At least it would be a net increase and I think we need a more “all hands on deck” mentality about habitat conservation funding. Things are changing more rapidly than we can respond, and we need to begin to think and act more to modify current or finding different funding mechanisms.”

Vriska shares the concerns many of us may have that some sort of competition would develop among those who have paid for conservation for different reasons, but asserts that “bickering over that will just result in wasted time and energy and only result in more habitat disappearing off the landscape.”

Although not covered in the paper in the Wildlife Society Bulletin, the authors have suggested elsewhere (at conferences) that a different species of duck stamp be developed, with different price levels. Andy Raedeke, one of the paper’s co-authors has suggested having a stamp with a base price (say $20) for National Wildlife Refuge and Wildlife Protection Area efforts, another ($25?) allowing access for duck hunting with a reduced bag limit, another ($30?) for full season access and a super duper version ($50?) with full hunting access and a plaque or gift recognizing support. I’m thinking maybe one of those mugs that changes when you fill it with hot coffee; a view of a marsh when it is empty, and a flock of ducks taking flight when you pour in the java!

But a separate stamp for wildlife preservation would also work. Duck hunters would be more than welcome to purchase the second stamp (possibly at a discount) when they get their duck stamp, but bird watchers and other outdoor enthusiasts would want one as well. The question remains: would a wildlife stamp be required to use certain lands, or would it be voluntary?

The Wildlife Conservation Stamp is probably an idea whose time has come. From the afore referenced web site:

A Federal Wildlife Conservation Stamp would provide a robust, parallel revenue stream for National Wildlife Refuges, preserving habitat and wildlife, while giving non-extractive users a funding tool and a stronger voice in habitat and wildlife decisions on our shared, public lands…Among birders and wildlife watchers, there’s little disagreement about supporting our 560 National Wildlife Refuges, along with the habitat and wildlife they sustain. Most wildlife watchers are anxious to contribute their resources toward that end.

If you want to contribute to that effort, I know that Larry Jordan, Ingrid Taylar and Hugh Grew are asking for help, including guest bloggers who can write about wildlife refuges. Check out their site.

Would you, as a bird watcher, buy a stamp like this even if you were not required to? I would.

Vrtiska, M., Gammonley, J., Naylor, L., & Raedeke, A. (2013). Economic and conservation ramifications from the decline of waterfowl hunters Wildlife Society Bulletin DOI: 10.1002/wsb.245

Written by Greg
Greg Laden has been watching birds since they were still dinosaurs, but has remained the consummate amateur. This is probably because he needs better binoculars. Based in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, Greg is a biological anthropologist and Africanist, who writes and teaches about Evolution, especially of humans. He also blogs at Greg's beat is Bird Evolutionary Biology. One could say that knowing the science of birds can make the birds more interesting. But really, knowing about the birds that go with the science is more likely to make the science more interesting. And thus, birding and Neo Darwinian Theory go hand in hand. Darwin was, after all, a pretty serious birder. Greg has seen a bird eat a monkey in the wild.