Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act

While legislation had been passed five years earlier to protect waterfowl populations in the United States, it had lacked any funding mechanism. Enactment of the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act provided the nation’s first regular federal funding for waterfowl management, thereby enabling such management to be accomplished rather than merely recommended.

Summary of Event

On March 16, 1934, the U.S. Congress enacted the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act (also known as the Duck Stamp Act) to provide critical funds for wetlands and waterfowl conservation programs. Until this act was passed, no stable funding source was available for such conservation work. As has been the case with many conservation programs, a long, twisting journey was taken over many years to enact this far-reaching legislation. [kw]Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act (Mar. 16, 1934)
[kw]Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, Migratory (Mar. 16, 1934)
[kw]Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, Migratory Bird (Mar. 16, 1934)
[kw]Conservation Stamp Act, Migratory Bird Hunting and (Mar. 16, 1934)
[kw]Stamp Act, Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation (Mar. 16, 1934)
[kw]Act, Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (Mar. 16, 1934)
Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act (1934)
Birds, protection
Wildlife conservation
Duck Stamp Act (1934)
[g]United States;Mar. 16, 1934: Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act[08610]
[c]Environmental issues;Mar. 16, 1934: Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act[08610]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 16, 1934: Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act[08610]
Leopold, Aldo
Beck, Thomas
Darling, Jay
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;waterfowl management committee
Norbeck, Peter
Lawyer, George A.
Walcott, Frederic Collin
Andresen, August H.

Waterfowl populations declined sharply in the early 1900’s. Extensive habitat loss caused by the long drought of the 1930’s, overharvest by market hunting, and the Great Depression created both ecological and financial crises for resource management programs. Water from prairie potholes, ponds, and marshes had disappeared, and with it the nesting and rearing habitat for waterfowl. Dust storms raged, and the Dust Bowl created a biological crisis. Waterfowl numbers in North America reached their lowest point in history. Many conservationists predicted the extinction of ducks and geese in the United States.

The first Duck Stamp, featuring art by Jay Darling.

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

In January, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed a special waterfowl committee of Jay Darling, Thomas Beck, and Aldo Leopold to determine the needs of waterfowl management and outline a plan for saving this disappearing resource. The committee estimated that $50 million was needed for the purchase and restoration of wetlands for wildlife, with special emphasis on migratory waterfowl. Finding such an immense sum during the Depression was improbable. Indeed, Congress had already passed legislation in 1929 to buy land for waterfowl refuges, but had yet to provide any stable funding sources for such land purchases. Without funds to implement the 1929 legislation and the recommendations of Roosevelt’s blue-ribbon committee, programs to protect waterfowl would exist only on paper. Darling—who was the new director of the Bureau of Biological Survey (later known as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)—came up with a potential solution to this problem: He revived the idea of requiring a federal stamp on duck-hunting licenses and stipulating that revenue from its sale be used to restore lost waterfowl habitat.

The idea of issuing a federal waterfowl stamp to provide funds for the acquisition of public hunting grounds had first been proposed by George A. Lawyer, chief U.S. game warden, shortly after the end of World War I. Such a bill was debated several times in Congress but failed to pass four times between 1921 and 1926. Dr. William T. Hornaday Hornaday, William T. led the formidable opposition against the Game Refuge-Public Shooting Grounds Bill. Game Refuge-Public Shooting Grounds Bill[Game Refuge Public Shooting Grounds Bill] Hornaday believed that liberal bag limits and the use of semiautomatic shotguns was causing the slaughter of too many ducks and geese, and he argued that the creation of game refuges was simply a method of concentrating waterfowl for more killing by hunters. He called supporters of this bill “game hogs” and “butchers.”

Senator Peter Norbeck had reintroduced the Game Refuge-Public Shooting Grounds Bill in the opening days of the Seventieth Congress (1927-1928). After bitter debate, the federal licensing and public hunting-grounds features were removed from it, and the Norbeck bill passed the Senate. Congressman August H. Andresen of Minnesota authored a new bill identical to the amended Norbeck bill on January 23, 1929. Without provision for congressional moneys, this bill quickly passed the House. After eight years of disagreement and acrimonious charges, on February 8, 1929, the Norbeck-Andresen Act Norbeck-Andresen Act (1929)[Norbeck Andresen Act] established a feasible waterfowl refuge law.

The idea of a federal hunting license for waterfowl had seemed defeated with the passage of the final version of the Norbeck-Andresen Act, but in the wake of the onset of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, Dust Bowl;waterfowl effects it acquired new life and new urgency. In early 1927, drought, drainage of wetlands, and expanding hunting and poaching pressure had caused waterfowl numbers to decline sharply. In the fall of 1929, drought-stricken populations of waterfowl had begun to plummet sharply. On December 31, 1929, the bag limit had been reduced from twenty-five to fifteen ducks a day, but the waterfowl crash had continued.

Frederic Collin Walcott, a Connecticut senator and an avid duck hunter, viewed the waterfowl crash with alarm. His great desire for wildlife conservation led him to establish the Senate Special Committee on the Conservation of Wildlife Resources. As its first chairman, he proposed a greatly intensified waterfowl management program in 1931. The funding of this management effort revived the American Game Association’s idea of a federal hunting stamp. On April 4, 1932, more than one hundred witnesses were heard by Walcott’s committee. Most of the witnesses favored the hunting stamp proposal.

By 1934, then, the way had been largely prepared for the recommendation of Darling’s committee, which seemed to confirm what Walcott’s committee had already decided. Darling lobbied Congress for a duck stamp, and progress toward its enactment was rapid: The Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act become law on March 16, 1934. The law required all waterfowl hunters sixteen years of age and older to buy federal duck stamps, sign them, and paste them to the back of their state-issued hunting licenses. Sold at local U.S. Post Offices, the stamps were required only for hunting ducks and geese, not for hunting any other migratory game birds. Darling, an astute political cartoonist and an outstanding artist, designed the first duck stamp in 1934; it sold for one dollar. All funds from the sale of this stamp were to be used for waterfowl management and the acquisition of wetland habitats essential for restoring waterfowl numbers. The act was the first major federal statute to establish a special fund to be used exclusively for wildlife conservation purposes.


Before the crash of waterfowl populations in the 1920’s, the U.S. government had set aside about 744,000 acres of habitat for all wildlife. By 1942, almost 3 million acres had been set aside for the preservation of waterfowl alone. Much of the money for this land acquisition came from the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act of 1934. Duck stamp receipts are available for use without congressional appropriation. In the first fifty years of the program’s existence, more than eighty-eight million duck stamps provided more than $300 million for waterfowl conservation.

On August 12, 1949, in response to fiscal crises, the price of the duck stamp was doubled from one dollar to two dollars. The 1949 amendment to the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act also authorized the secretary of the interior to set aside wildlife management areas on up to 25 percent of any land acquired with duck stamp revenues. Hunting of resident and migratory game birds was to be allowed on these lands. In 1958, another amendment to the act increased hunter access to 40 percent of lands acquired with duck stamp moneys. The issue of whether to allow sport hunting on lands acquired with duck stamp revenues in the National Wildlife Refuge System National Wildlife Refuge System, U.S. remains controversial.

Inadequate funding for acquisition of lands for wildlife, especially waterfowl, is a continuing problem for wildlife conservationists. For example, the price of a duck stamp increased nearly 750 percent between 1934 and 1986. In the same interval of time, however, the price of farmland rose 2,600 percent. Thus revenues generated by duck stamps alone cannot buy and maintain all the needed remaining wetlands of the United States.

In the United States, about 5.2 million acres of waterfowl habitat have been preserved since the 1930’s through the duck stamp program. Because of the success of the U.S. government in raising moneys through the sale of duck stamps for waterfowl conservation, many states in the United States also issue hunting stamps to fund their conservation needs. Stamps for upland game birds, trout, turkeys, and nongame animals raise several million dollars each year for important conservation activities. Such programs are thus legacies of a time when it seemed that waterfowl, one of the nation’s priceless resources, might disappear forever from North America. Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act (1934)
Birds, protection
Wildlife conservation
Duck Stamp Act (1934)

Further Reading

  • Day, Albert M. North American Waterfowl. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole, 1959. Provides an excellent overview of the historical progress of waterfowl management in North America through the 1950’s.
  • Farley, John L. Duck Stamps and Wildlife Refuges. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1959. Circular no. 37. A capsule summary of the history of the enactment of the Duck Stamp Act and how it has benefited waterfowl conservation.
  • Gilmore, Jene C. Art for Conservation: The Federal Duck Stamps. Barre, Mass.: Barre, 1971. Each duck stamp from 1934 through 1971 is portrayed in black and white. Additional information on number of stamps sold, a brief biography of the artist who produced the stamp, and information on the stamps’ production is given clearly and concisely in this book.
  • Linduska, Joseph P. Waterfowl Tomorrow. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1964. An updated version of Day’s book on waterfowl history, this is a good first book from which to learn the history of waterfowl management.
  • McBride, David P. The Federal Duck Stamps: A Complete Guide. Piscataway, N.J.: Winchester Press, 1984. The best book on duck stamps. Details the enactment of the Duck Stamp Act and includes black-and-white reproductions of the stamps from 1934 through 1984. Eleven appendixes and a bibliography add considerable information about duck stamps.
  • Reiger, John F. American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation. 3d rev. and expanded ed. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001. Study emphasizing the connection between sport and conservation in American history. Largely a prehistory of the Duck Stamp Act, but includes an epilogue on Aldo Leopold and his place in the history of conservation and sport. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Trefethen, James B. Crusade for Wildlife: Highlights in Conservation Progress. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole, 1961. One of the best books on the history of wildlife conservation in the United States. Written in a readable style that makes historical facts come alive.

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