Photo of Duck Hunter at Sunset courtesy of Larry Hindman - Wildlife & Heritage Service

History of Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act

The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, which went into effect on July 1, 1934, authorized the annual issuance of what is popularly known as the Duck Stamp. In 1976, Congress changed the official name to the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp.

In the 49 years between July 1, 1934 and July 30, 1983, more than 86 million of these revenue stamps have been sold. The funds from their sale are used by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to buy land for the National Wildlife Refuge System, under the Service’s custodianship of waterfowl while they are within the borders of the United States.

The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act came about because conservationists were alarmed by a rapid decrease in wild ducks and geese. The problem was brought about by overshooting and a protracted drought in the heart of the waterfowl breeding area, which lasted through the early thirties. Also, drainage had emptied millions of acres of marsh nesting sites. As it turned out, much of the drained land proved practically useless for farming. Thus, drainage followed by drought had dried up important nesting grounds in the north, resting areas in mid-America, and wintering places in the south The Duck Stamp Act provided funds for the conservation of migratory waterfowl. Through it, mistakes could be remedied by restoring some drained land to the country’s wildlife, and some marshlands not yet destroyed could be saved.

Under the Act, any person who hunts ducks, geese, swans or brant and is 16 years of age or older must carry a current Duck Stamp on which he has written his signature in ink. This qualifies the hunter as a legal wildfowl hunter, provided he has a state-hunting license.

The first stamp price was $1 and the Act specified that proceeds go into a special treasury account, the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. Not less than 90 percent of the account could be used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to supplement other funds for the "purchase, development, and maintenance" of waterfowl refuges. The remaining 10 percent were for printing and distribution, plus enforcement of the Act and other federal laws on migratory birds. Amendments over the years have increased the price of the stamp seven times and changed the original 90:10 percent division of the funds.

In August 1949, Congress raised the price of the stamp to $2 to offset rising costs encountered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services in its work to expand waterfowl conservation. In October 1951, Congress authorized an increase in expenditure of Duck Stamp funds for enforcement and administration from 10 percent to 15 percent of annual receipts.

On August 1, 1958, Public Law 85-585 increased the price of the stamp to $3, effective July 1, 1959, and earmarked the proceeds, less the actual expenses connected with the sale of the stamps by the Post Office Department for the acquisition of migratory bird refuges and "waterfowl production areas", effective July, 1960. That law also gave the secretary of the interior authority to open a maximum of 40 percent of any migratory bird refuge to the hunting of game birds. Waterfowl production areas were exempt from the 40 percent limitation.

An Act on October 15, 1966, removed the 40 percent hunting limitation, but restated it as applied to hunting of migratory game birds on refuges established as inviolate sanctuaries. Discretion was also granted to the secretary to open any part of a refuge to the hunting of resident game birds if compatible with the major purpose for which the area was established.

In March 1972, the cost of the Duck Stamp was raised to $5, beginning the 1972-73 season. For the 1979-80 season, the price was raised to $7.50. For the 1987-88 season, the price was raised to $10.00. The price went up to $12.50 with the 1989-90 season and finally up to $15.00 with the 1991-92 season where it is today.

The Duck Stamp Act, as amended, requires that stamps shall be issued and sold by the Postal Service, and authorizes the Department of the Interior to sell the stamps at designated places. The Postal Service is also required to redeem unused stamps in blocks of two or more before the end of each fiscal year.

The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act created a continuing source of funds for waterfowl habitat acquisition and restoration by requiring that sportsmen purchase a Duck Stamp before they hunt waterfowl. Revenue received from the sale of Duck Stamps from the time the Act became effective in 1934 through July 1983 totaled more than $256 million. During this period, Duck stamp funds were used to acquire about 878,000 acres of refuge lands for migratory birds; and also to purchase outright nearly 453,876 acres, and to obtain easements prohibiting drainage of more than 1,152,417 acres of wetlands for waterfowl production areas which are open to hunting. During the past 50 years, over 3.5 million acres have been acquired as National Wildlife Refuge System lands or Waterfowl Production Areas with more than $400 million in revenue. Of the $400 million, $256 million came from Duck Stamp receipts and $144 million from accelerated Wetlands Acquisition Loan funds.

Before July 1, 1960, land acquisition was but one of several waterfowl programs financed a least in part with Duck Stamp money. Approximately 20 percent of these funds were used to acquire refuge lands and about 50 percent were used to develop and maintain migratory bird refuges after they were acquired.

On July 1, 1960, an amendment to the Duck Stamp Act became effective which specified that stamp revenues must be used to acquire land for migratory birds. Since then, receipts have totaled more than $153 million. Thus, sportsmen and others who purchase Duck Stamps have contributed directly to the acquisition, development, and maintenance of national wildlife refuges. Spotted strategically along the flight paths of the birds, these refuges give sanctuary to great numbers of migrant and wintering ducks and geese.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the United States has taken increasingly broad steps to conserve and protect waterfowl. The Lacey Act of 1900, as amended, describes the duties of the Department of the Interior as including the preservation, distribution, introduction and restoration of game birds and other wild birds. The Act authorizes the secretary of the interior to regulate the introduction into the United States of foreign birds and animals and to purchase such birds as may be required in order to assist in the restoration of scarce birds.

In 1916, this country signed a migratory bird t4reaty with Great Britain, on behalf of Canada, obligating the federal government to be involved in the care of migratory birds while they are in the United States or its possessions. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 implemented this treaty by providing for regulations controlling the taking, sale, transportation and importation of migratory birds. A 1974 amendment expanded the provisions to include products of migratory birds such as nests, eggs, and other parts when said products are included in the terms of any treaty. A 1936 treaty with Mexico on migratory birds and game mammals adopted a system for the rational use of certain birds and game mammals and provided the establishment of closed seasons and refuge zones. In 1972, the treaty was amended to include 32 additional birds, including hawks, doves, jays and magpies. The treaty was implemented by an amendment to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

In 1972, the United States and Japan ratified a treaty designed to protect birds that migrate between the two countries. With certain exceptions, this treaty prohibits the taking of migratory birds and the sale, purchase or exchange of the birds or their products. The countries agreed to control the exportation and importation of migratory birds and to endeavor to prevent damage to birds and their environment. This treaty was also implemente4d by amendment to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Congress passed the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929 allowing for the protection of migratory birds including the responsibility to provided breeding, nesting and wintering habitat. The Act authorizes the acquisition of migratory bird refuges and establishes a Migratory Bird Conservation Commission to evaluate migratory waterfowl habitat proposed for acquisition. The Commission consists of the secretary of transportation, two senators, two representatives, and the head of the conservation department of the state in which the proposed acquisition is located.

The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act of 1934, also known as the Duck Stamp Act, authorizes that funds received from receipts from the sale of Duck Stamps shall be paid into the Treasury of the United States to be subsequently placed in the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. This fund is to be made available and utilized for the acquisition of migratory bird refuges and waterfowl production areas.

The Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act of 1934 authorizes agencies engaged in water resource projects to acquire lands for the purpose of conserving and enhancing fish and wildlife resources. It directs the U.S. Department of the Interior to advise these agencies in minimizing and mitigating project-related damages and to provide assistance to other agencies on matters related to the rearing of fish and wildlife and the development of habitat. Thus legislation has been responsible for the establishment of many federal and state waterfowl management areas at water projects under the primary jurisdiction of the Corps of Engineers of the Bureau of Reclamation.

The Waterfowl Depredations Control. Act of 1956 authorizes the Department of the Interior to receive surplus grain from the Commodity Credit Corporation to be used to divert migratory birds that threaten or damage farmer’s crops. The secretary is authorized to prescribe regulations that promote actions to effectively lure waterfowl away from the crops. The secretary is authorized to prescribe regulations that promote actions to effectively lure waterfowl away from the crops. Similarly, in 1961, Congress passed the Surplus Grain for Wildlife Act, which protects migratory birds from starvation due to adverse weather conditions or other natural or man-elated destructive factors. The Act authorizes the secretary of the interior to requisition grain from the Commodity Credit Corporation when such a threat occurs.

The Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956, as amended, established the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and authorizes the secretary of the interior to take all necessary steps to develop, manage, advance, conserve and protect fish and wildlife resources through research, habitat acquisition and enhancement of existing facilities.

In 1961, Congress passed the Wetland Loan Act authorizing an appropriation of up to $105 million to be spent for fiscal year 1962 through fiscal year 1976 for a wetlands acquisition program for waterfowl. In 1976, Congress passed legislation extending this acquisition authority for seven years, from June 30, 1976, to September 30, 1983, and increasing the amount of funds to $200 million. Funds from this authorization must be repaid beginning October 1983, by returning to the Treasury 75 percent of the annual receipts from Duck Stamp sales.

A 1962 amendment to the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1935 prohibits, under certain conditions, federal assistance in draining wetlands on farms in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, the principal duck nesting grounds of the lower 48 states. The secretary of the interior must find the proposed drainage will be harmful to wildlife preservation. This prohibition ends in one year unless the Department of the Interior or a state agency makes an offer to buy or lease the wetlands in question for waterfowl purposes.

The Water Project Recreation Act of 1965 declares that recreation and fish and wildlife enhancement shall be fully considered purposes of federal water resource projects such as flood control or hydroelectric development. The Act permits the expenditure of federal water project funds for land acquisition needed to establish migratory waterfowl areas at such projects.

In 1966, Congress passed the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, which provides guidelines and direction for the administration of the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, which provides guidelines and direction for the administration of the National Wildlife Refuge System. This includes wildlife and game ranges, wildlife management areas, waterfowl production areas, and areas for the protection and conservation of fish and wildlife that are threatened with extinction. The Act consolidates and broadens the management authorities of the System and provides enforcement provisions to protect the resources. Proceeds from the disposal of System lands, which were donated or acquired with Duck Stamp funds must be paid into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. The Migratory Bird Conservation Commission must be consulted prior to the transfer or disposal of any lands in the System acquired with Duck Stamp Receipts. Refuges established by executive or secretarial order or act of Congress cannot be disposed of, or the administration and management thereof transferred to another agency without an act of Congress.

The Water Bank Act, passed in 1970 to promote water management planning, authorizes the secretary of agriculture to formulate and implement a program to prevent the loss of wetlands and surface waters; to preserve, restore and improve habitat for migratory waterfowl; to reduce runoff, erosion and sedimentation; to improve water quality and subsurface moisture; and to enhance natural beauty.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 provides for the conservation of threatened and endangered species of fish, wildlife and plants and encourages states to develop and maintain conservation programs for endangered and threatened species. The Act authorizes the determination and listing of threatened and endangered species based on factors of population decline due to habitat modification or overutilization, and disease or perdition. It also prohibits all unauthorized taking, possession, sale and transport of endangered species. The Act authorized programs of habitat acquisition and cooperative agreements with states, which maintain acceptable conservation programs for threatened and endangered species.

The Environmental Policy Act of 1969 has had one of the most significant impacts on the projects and policies of government agencies. It contains substantive and procedural provisions based on a policy to "created and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony." The Act requires all federal agencies to utilize an interdisciplinary approach to insure the integrated use of the natural and social sciences in environmental planning and decision making. It requires that agencies prepare a detailed environmental impact statement in connection with all "major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment."

Duck Stamps may be purchased from all first and second class post offices. Beginning in mid-1976, the Department of the Interior was also authorized to sell Duck Stamps through other facilities to encourage nonhunters interested in conservation to buy them. Collectors seeking particularly fine, well-centered copies may obtain them from the Philatelic Sales Agency, U.S. Postal Service, Washington, D.C. 20260, which keeps on hand the three most recent issues.

The first Duck Stamps went on sale August 14, 1934, at $1 each. The $2 issue became available on September 1, 1949; the $3 stamps went on sale July 1, 1959; the $5 issue went on sale July 1, 1972; the $7.50 issue went on sale July 1, 1979; the $10.00 issue went on sale July 1, 1987; the $12.50 issue went on sale July 1, 1989, and the $15.00 issue went on sale July 1, 1991.

Total sales that first year were 635,001. In 1938-39, Duck Stamp sales passed the 1 million mark, reaching their peak in 1971-72, with 2,426,058 stamps sold.

Issues previous to 1941 are exceedingly rare. In 1934, the law specified that unsold stamps should be destroyed after the year of issue had expired. But Interior’s Appropriation Act for 1942 carried a provision that permits all unsold stamps to be turned over to the Philatelic Agency of the Post Office and "therein placed on sale until disposed of or until the Congress otherwise provides."

Private collectors or stamp dealers are the only source of supply for the early issues which now have a monetary value far in excess of their original cost.

To select each year’s design, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts an annual contest, open to interested artists, for the next year’s Duck Stamp. Details of the contest are announced in mid-summer, and all entries must be postmarked no later than October 15. Rules for the contest are available from Public Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C. 20240.

Artists have wide latitude in the choice of medium-pen and ink, oil, watercolor, etching pencil. Designs may be in black and white or full color, but they must be seven inches wide and five inches high.

Winners receive no compensation except an album containing a sheet of their stamps. However, many contest winners have capitalized on their designs by selling autographed prints.

Most of the information contained above is from the book Federal Duck Stamp Story, Fifty Years of Excellence, by Laurence F. Jonson; Alexander & Co. It is used here with permission from the author. For more information on this book, please click here.


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