Canvasback with a side of egret on your federal duck stamp?

On the Federal Register Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed arguably the biggest change in the 83-year history of the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp. The Department of the Interior annually issues the endorsement, better known as the Federal Duck Stamp, and requires that all waterfowlers purchase one before hunting migratory birds.

Hundreds of artists submit paintings of waterfowl every year, hoping to have their art featured on the prestigious stamp, but the USFWS has pitched a new wrinkle: The proposal states that the portrayal of the waterfowl on the Duck Stamp should include “an appropriate non-waterfowl migratory bird species in the artwork design.”

“Appropriate” would seem to rule out bluebirds and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, but a red-winged blackbird perched on a cattail behind a canvasback or an eagle soaring above a pair of swans would seem to fit the bill. 

Historically, each artwork entry has been required to depict a species of migratory waterfowl from a list of five or fewer identified as eligible each year. For 2016, each artwork entry must depict a species of migratory waterfowl from a list of five or fewer identified as eligible, plus the nongame bird.

Are waterfowlers ready to share their stamp? A comment period on the proposal runs through March 14, and if the USFWS follows through with the proposal, the addition of a nongame bird would be effective with the 2016 contest this June. That winning artwork would appear on the 2017-18 federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp.

This will be a wild one to watch play out. There’s been debate over this concept for years, and waterfowlers are notoriously possessive of the stamp and its magnificent conservation history. Since its inception in 1934, the Duck Stamp has raised more than $750 million and conserved more than 6 million acres of waterfowl habitat. (Some of those acres likely include the federal waterfowling bonanza countryside around Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.)

Minnesota has produced more winning artists than any other state, and every well-informed Minnesota outdoorsman knows the state’s own Hautman brothers finished one-two-three in the 2015 contest.

After years of wrangling (and strong support from scribes at Outdoor News), the stamp saw its first significant price increase since 1991 last year – from $15 to $25. 

Waterfowlers purchase the vast majority of duck stamps, although collectors, bird watchers, and other conservationists buy the stamps for the simple reason that dollars go to purchase wildlife habitat. The number of waterfowlers has been declining across the country, so there’s little doubt the USFWS wants to expand interest in the stamp while retaining its traditional waterfowling identity.

Today, a nonprofit group called Friends of the Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp issued a press release strongly supporting the proposal, along with a link to comments.

“The idea to include a ‘secondary bird species,’ in addition to the dominant waterfowl on the stamp, would be a great way to deliver the message that the funds collected from the stamp go to help other species far beyond waterfowl,” said Paul Baicich, group president. “It’s all about habitat.”

Personally, I’m not thrilled with the proposal, though I suspect the sheer challenge of adding another bird to the 1.5-inch stamp will spark some creative designs. This coming week’s print edition of Outdoor News will break the story down in more detail. In the meantime, access the USFWS proposal and comment yourself (through March 14, 2016) via the Federal Register. (You’ll see many waterfowlers already have chimed in on the proposal.) The docket number is FWS-HQ-MB-2015-0161. To access the proposed rule, go to regulations.gov or click here

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