Duck Stamps: Your License to Help Wildlife

The sale of federal waterfowl-hunting stamps raises funds for habitat protection and the conservation of myriad wildlife species, giving all Americans a way to help out

  • Roger Di Silvestro
  • Apr 01, 2007
ACROSS SOUTHEASTERN Arkansas sprawls the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, a vast, forested wetland that is not only the seasonal home of ducks and geese but possibly one of the last strongholds of the endangered ivory-billed woodpecker. The refuge shelters many other bird species, from migrating warblers to resident wading birds. Quite likely, though, it would not exist if not for the federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, commonly known as the duck stamp. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), money raised from the sale of duck stamps paid for three quarters of the refuge.

Cache River is not the only national wildlife refuge dependent on duck stamp money. For example, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Georgia—known as much for its countless alligators as for its waterfowl—gets 88 percent of its land-acquisition funding from stamp money. Ninety-nine percent of acquisition funds for Massachusetts’ Parker River National Wildlife Refuge come from duck stamps. Quivera National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas also draws 99 percent of its land acquisition funding from duck stamps. California’s Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which shelters myriad shorebirds and provides harbor seals with a beach on which to bear young, was purchased in part with duck stamp money.

Stamp funds also are used to purchase federal Waterfowl Production Areas, natural wetlands and associated uplands averaging about 225 acres in size. Stamp money has helped pay for some 26,000 of these vital waterfowl breeding areas throughout the United States. “In short, wild lands and wildlife all over the nation depend on duck stamp money,” says Sean McMahon, director of NWF’s national land stewardship campaigns.

The duck stamp program was created in 1934 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, which required anyone older than 16 to have a federal duck stamp affixed to a state hunting license when hunting waterfowl. The stamp was sold in post offices for a dollar.

Today, the price is $15. Choosing the design for the stamp, which each year features a different waterfowl painting, has become a major undertaking, with hundreds of artists submitting entries in an annual contest. Since 1934, the stamp has raised more than $700 million for the purchase or lease of more than 5 million acres of wetlands and grasslands for the National Wildlife Refuge System, which today includes 95 million acres scattered in 545 refuges. Presently, about 1.7 million stamps are sold each year, raising more than $25 million annually. Each stamp is valid for one year, beginning on July 1.

Although the duck stamp program was created with waterfowl and waterfowl hunters in mind, funds from stamp sales benefit all types of species and outdoor enthusiasts, says Paul Baicich, a Maryland biological consultant who believes all conservationists should buy duck stamps as a contribution to wildlife protection. “Among the species that benefit from habitat protected with stamp moneys are egrets, herons, shorebirds, bald eagles, yellow-headed blackbirds and other wetland species from fish to turtles as well as many grassland birds,” he says. “Eighty percent of visitors to national wildlife refuges are there to watch wildlife, and 80 percent of those people are interested in birds.”

On refuges nationwide in fiscal year 2004, the most recent year for which FWS statistics are available, nearly 16 million visitors enjoyed nature and interpretive trails, 3.8 million observed or photographed wildlife from observation towers or photo blinds, and 10.3 million toured on special wildlife-viewing routes.

Even Americans with little or no interest in wildlife benefit from the duck stamp program, because protected wetlands help purify water supplies, store floodwater and reduce soil erosion and sedimentation. Ding Darling, the NWF founding father who played a key role in starting the duck stamp program, made this point himself in the early 1950s when he told a Reader’s Digest reporter, “Of course you understand that I am not nearly so much interested in the preservation of migratory waterfowl as I am in the management of water resources and the crucial effects of such management upon human sustenance. Wild ducks and geese and teeter-assed shore birds are only the delicate indicators of the prognosis for human existence, just as sure as God made little green apples.”

The stamps are one of the best ways to make your dollars work for wildlife, because 98 cents of every dollar spent on a duck stamp goes directly to purchase wetland and grassland habitat, says FWS spokesman Joshua Winchell. “It’s all about conservation,” he says. The stamps offer immediate benefits even to nonhunters, because they can be used for their entire year of issue as admission tickets to any national wildlife refuge that charges an entrance fee. One stamp will cover an entire carload of people.

And the stamps also are collectible. Keep them from year to year, and they may go up in value (the first duck stamp issued now sells for as much as $1,200). “The stamps are a nice all-in-one gift both for wildlife and purchasers,” McMahon says. “They’re one of the easiest ways to put your money to work for wildlife.”

Roger Di Silvestro is a senior editor of this magazine. Visit for information on NWF waterfowl and wetland programs.

Buying Duck Stamps

You can purchase federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps at U.S. post offices, at most sporting goods stores that sell hunting and fishing licenses, by calling 1-800-STAMP-24 (1-800-782-6724) or by visiting

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