By Ellie Horwitz | Chief, Information & Education
By Ellie Horwitz | Chief, Information & Education
Migratory waterfowl (ducks and geese) travel, rest, and feed over large portions of our continent. They winter as far south as Mexico and parts of Central America, and they breed in Canada and in some far northern sections of the U.S. Until 1910-1919, these birds were abundant but unregulated shooting began to take its toll. Improvements in firearms and the advent of inexpensive ammunition brought on “market gunners,” who took all they wanted and then sold the birds on the open market. It became obvious that federal legislation would be required to control waterfowl hunting and, as these birds traveled through many political venues, it was also apparent that there would have to be international agreements to conserve them.
The first step in protecting waterfowl was the passage, in 1916, of a treaty between the U.S. and Canada. Following this, a variety of hunting regulations were passed banning market gunning, night hunting, live decoys, and baiting. Federal hunting frameworks were established and each state set its regulations within those frameworks.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the combination of severe drought, the draining and destruction of marshes thought to be useless, and an economic depression that made wild game an attractive and accessible food source, exacerbated the problem. The Federal Migratory Bird Conservation Act (1929) was the first major piece of legislation passed to protect wetlands—but it contained no funding mechanism.
In 1934, Congress passed and President Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Stamp Act, which established stamps to underwrite the Migratory Bird Conservation Act. The stamp program owes its existence to J. N. “Ding” Darling, a political cartoonist and a publicist who had been enlisted to bring together a coalition on behalf of wildlife and to create a funding mechanism. The Act provided that mechanism. Then, in 1937, Ducks Unlimited was founded as a not-for-profit organization that would apply conservation funds in various states and countries including Canada or Mexico as needed.
Despite the success of the federal program, more funding was needed and, in 1972, James Shepard, Director of the Massachusetts DFW, began working toward a bill that would create a Massachusetts Waterfowl Stamp. The Act was passed in 1974 and signed by Gov. Francis Sargent, himself a former Director of the DFW.
Under the terms of this act, sportsmen were required to make a small donation, $1.25, which would be divided as follows: $.25 to the seller, $.20 to the DFW for production of the stamps, and $.80 to Ducks Unlimited, which could apply the funds where they were most needed. (In 1990, the cost of the stamp was raised to $5.00.)
Shortly after passage of the act, State Representative Robert Gillette, who had been the major sponsor of the legislation, met George Starr, noted decoy collector and author. Starr proposed that the subject of this stamp be a working decoy made by a deceased Massachusetts decoy maker—a subject that would stand as a tribute to a uniquely American art form. Together they presented this proposal to Director Shepard, and so the Massachusetts Waterfowl Stamp program was born.
The first year of the program, with no time to develop the rules for a competition, the Commonwealth chose a painting by Milton C. Weiler of a Wood Duck drake decoy carved by Joe Lincoln as subject for the stamp. The following year they established a contest, and five artists from three states participated. The winning artwork was a painting of a Pintail drake carved by A. Elmer Crowell of East Harwich, Mass., submitted by Tom Hennessey of Maine. Each year thereafter, for 36 years, the DFW would issue a call to artists and would then wait to receive paintings. The artwork came from many different states. All entries were reviewed by a panel of highly knowledgeable verifiers to ensure that they were truly Massachusetts made decoys and, if a painting was challenged, the artist was called and asked to provide additional background on his or her subject. Once the authenticity of all of the entries had been confirmed, the entries were presented to a panel of judges selected to represent sportsmen, artists, and decoy experts. Competition was fierce and, as the contest continued, the submitted artwork became increasingly professional.
In 1979, The Peabody Museum of Salem (now the Peabody Essex Museum; PEM) signed on as the official custodian of the stamp program records and committed to hosting an annual reception and a display of the qualifying artwork. While PEM remains the official custodian, the reception and exhibition have rotated to other museums around the state, including the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, the Springfield Science Museum and the Marblehead Museum, in an effort to bring the remarkable artwork submitted to viewers in all parts of the Commonwealth.
Over the past 38 years, Massachusetts has contributed $1,361,879 of Waterfowl Stamp funds to Ducks Unlimited to support the North American Waterfowl Management Plan’s State Grants Program for conservation work in Atlantic Canada. This money was matched dollar for dollar an additional three times by DU, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, and Ducks Unlimited Canada, resulting in over $4 million for critical waterfowl habitat conservation and benefitting 351,784 acres of key waterfowl habitat. Although the way the DFW issues licenses will change over time, this wonderfully successful conservation program will actually be improved as the stamps are transformed. No longer will there be an art competition or a run of full-color stamps (and we will miss both of these elements). Instead, the Massachusetts Waterfowl Stamp will be imprinted directly on the license and more of the funds collected will be put “on the ground” for waterfowl and associated wildlife habitat.
Ellie Horwitz, Chief of Information & Education oversees DFW publications, production of licenses and stamps, and education programs. She has been involved with the waterfowl stamp art competitions since 1977. For a complete history of the Massachusetts Waterfowl Stamp program read the “History of Massachusetts Waterfowl Stamps and Prints” by C.G. Rice; publ. by the Peabody Essex Museum.