Two newspaper articles slid into my email box a day apart early this month, complete with the senders’ promises of doom and darkness for waterfowl hunting if we don’t read and take heed.
The first article told of a novice hunter who killed an endangered whooping crane in Texas, but turned himself in for the mistake. My correspondent called the guy stupid — a fair commentary, I suppose — and warned similar mistaken-identity cases would occur if Wisconsinites could hunt sandhill cranes.
Hmm. Maybe, but sandhill crane hunting wasn’t legal where the Texan killed the whooper, so where’s the foolproof protection?
The second article reported a study evaluating declines in federal duck stamp sales. These $15 stamps are mandatory for waterfowl hunters nationwide. As waterfowlers quit hunting, conservation suffers because about 98 percent of money from duck stamps buys or leases habitat for national wildlife refuges.
The study, led by researcher Mark Vrtiska of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, found declining stamp sales cost waterfowl conservation programs about $126 million from 1995 to 2008.
So, which problem poses worse threats to North American waterfowl, one dead whooper or plunging duck stamp sales?
Judging by the endless “reader feedback” insults below the dead crane article, hunters and nonhunters prefer focusing on the dead whooper. Nonhunters indict all hunting and hunters while cynically dismissing their conservation ethic. Hunters return the slurs, and taunt antagonists with crane recipes.
Don’t you wish both sides would abandon their keyboards, shed their slippers and sweat pants for boots and woolen clothes, walk outside and quit writing anonymous e-nasties on the Internet’s outhouse walls? If we care about all waterfowl, not just individual cranes, we must work to reverse declines in conservation funding.
It won’t be easy. In a Feb. 5 article in the “Wildlife Society Bulletin,” Vrtiska writes that waterfowl hunter numbers are declining even as today’s waterfowl and hunting opportunities exceed anything documented the past century.
Since 1995, six of 10 ducks species regularly monitored reached record numbers. And since 1955, breeding-duck populations in survey areas exceeded 40 million only nine times, but six of those years were since 1995. Those big duck numbers supported longer hunting seasons and greater bag limits than anything seen since the early 1970s.
Even so, annual duck stamp sales fell 36 percent from an average of 2.2 million in the 1970s to 1.4 million during the 2004-2008 hunting seasons. Granted, similar declines in overall hunter numbers and license sales hurt all wildlife management programs. But the loss hits waterfowl conservation especially hard because it depends so much on duck stamps.
This ongoing decline marks the first time hunter numbers fell while duck numbers climbed. Historically, waterfowler numbers rose and fell in relation to duck numbers. Starting in the 1990s, that correlation vanished.
What’s the decline’s economic impact? Vrtiska’s researchers estimate 600,000 more stamps would have been sold between 1995 and 2008, which meant annual average losses of $9 million during the 14-year period.
Vrtiska’s team also predicts hunter numbers will keep declining, not only from social, cultural and economic factors, but also because certain duck populations soon will peak. When their numbers fade with habitat losses, they’ll trigger shorter seasons and smaller bag limits. After analyzing three scenarios to predict such impacts, the researchers estimated future duck stamp losses up to $14.3 million annually.
In turn, as hunter numbers decline, private hunter-based conservation organizations will struggle to maintain habitat projects. The researchers expect corresponding funding losses from federal excise taxes paid by hunters on firearms and ammunition through the Pittman-Robertson Act.
So, what to do? Even though more than 70 million U.S. citizens say they’re wildlife watchers, few buy duck stamps. Nor do groups they support urge such purchases. Vrtiska suggests a compromise: Require everyone entering a national wildlife refuge or waterfowl production area — whether to hike, fish, bird-watch, or hunt deer or other game — buy a duck stamp.
In addition, require all migratory bird hunters — including those hunting coots, rails, snipes, woodcocks, moorhens and mourning doves — buy a duck stamp. And rename it the “Federal Migratory Bird Habitat Conservation Stamp” to reflect its full mission.
In that spirit, let’s consider sandhill cranes, whooping cranes and trumpeter swans for the old duck stamp. They’re excellent poster boys for waterfowl conservation.
Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for Press-Gazette Media. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.