Duck Hunters Fuss Over Repeal of Trump Rule on License-Stamp Art
(Bloomberg) -- Duck hunters in the U.S. have been required for decades to buy a stamp portraying the fowl and affix it to their hunting licenses with the proceeds being used for conservation.
The competition among artists to design the stamp has generally been uneventful, resulting in colorful scenes of waterfowl among reeds and over estuaries. But this year, it has become entangled in the culture wars.
The Trump administration added a requirement that the art on the $25 duck stamp contain some element to reflect hunting. That had artists chafing at the idea of showing shotgun shells alongside canvasbacks and buffleheads. Now the Biden administration has proposed dropping the obligatory hunting theme -- sparking anger among some hunters.
“The removal of hunting themes from the waterfowl stamp would be a shame,” Mike Mancini, of Monroe, Wisconsin, told the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which runs the duck stamp program.
“Hunters are the people that pay, and paid for, the North American model of conservation,” Mancini said in his comment filed online with the agency. “We should be celebrated, not denigrated, for our efforts.”
The stamps aren’t used for mail; waterfowl hunters must buy them annually, sign them and stick them on their state hunting licenses to hunt anywhere in the U.S. The program dates to 1934 and has raised more than $1.1 billion to conserve more than 6 million acres of waterfowl habitat, according to the Fish & Wildlife Service.
Occasionally past stamps have included imagery of hunting, for instance showing a decoy by a wood duck in 2019, a hunter in a distant boat beneath greater scaup in 1999, and a black Labrador Retriever carrying a mallard in 1959.
The stamps’ design is chosen in a juried art show, and to the winner goes a sheet of duck stamps and career-boosting prestige. The Trump administration added a requirement last year for the winning stamp image to reflect the theme “celebrating our waterfowl hunting heritage” and include hunting-related elements.
That led to the current stamp, which features a purple-headed lesser scaup floating near wooden duck calls, devices that hunters blow into to attract the birds.
But sales of the stamps, formally known as the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, are dropping, to about 1.5 million stamps annually from more than 2 million a generation ago, reflecting the long decline of hunting. That’s got some bird enthusiasts saying that reaching an audience beyond hunters could revive the program.
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Lifting the requirement could free artists’ creativity and broaden the stamps’ appeal, said Barbara Volkle, president of the Friends of the Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp.
“We appreciate hunters. But this isn’t the place to honor the hunting heritage,” Volkle, a member of the Brookline Bird Club in Massachusetts, said in an interview. “What we want to do is sell stamps.”
The Fish & Wildlife Service in proposing the change in June said lifting the mandate would allow artists more freedom of expression.
“Many duck stamp contest artists have continued to express their dissatisfaction with this element being a requirement for all entries,” the agency said. “The service has proposed this change to allow artists more freedom of expression when designing their entries.”
The Trump rule doesn’t specify what hunting-related elements must be shown. Artists entering last year’s contest showed hunters, dogs, and equipment such as decoys and duck calls.
The proposed change would be applicable for next year’s contest.
This year’s contest, with entries accepted June 1-through-Aug. 15, is being run with the hunting-depiction requirement. Artists may choose from among five species: the greater white-fronted goose, Ross’s Goose, blue-winged teal, redhead, or king eider.
Artists’ work gets reduced to the stamp’s boundaries of less than 2 inches a side, making it tough to include the hunting element as well as the required living duck, said Rebekah Knight, a deer hunter and wildlife artist based in Deepwater, Missouri.
“It’s really, really difficult,” said Knight, who has entered the annual stamp contest a dozen times and once won the junior division with a portrait of a redhead drake on a morning swim.
“This requirement puts a lot of limits on the art work,” Knight said in an interview. “You’re going to get a lot of unrealistic and cheesy attempts.”
Hunters such as Mancini, the Wisconsin man, say it’s important to remain focused on hunters. An insurance salesman, Mancini roams the Midwest in search of pintails, wood ducks, mallards and teal.
“It’s pretty simple,” Mancini said in an interview. “The duck stamp pays for waterfowl conservation. And the people who buy stamps are the people who hunt.”
People wanting to keep the hunting-depiction mandate expressed concern that hunters’ role in conservation may be slighted.
“Removing the hunting element from the artistic competition casts a shadow on the dedication waterfowl hunters have long shown to habitat while the masses stood by,” one commenter said.
“This is a slap in the face to the vast majority who have contributed to the program for the last 80 plus years,” said another commenter.
The Fish & Wildlife Service declined a request for an interview.
Duck hunting groups are steering clear of the debate.
“My goodness. We’re spending a lot of time fighting about it,” said John Devney, senior vice president for policy at Delta Waterfowl.
The 60,000-member duck hunting and conservation group based in Bismarck, North Dakota, hasn’t taken a stance, Devney said.
He nodded to the wetlands preserved through the program.
“Let’s focus on the outcomes of the duck stamp, more than the art,” Devney said.
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