BOMBAY HOOK NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Del. — Is it political correctness, or a shrewd way to clean the scales off an 82-year-old federal program? Will it secure more money for wildlife, or wreck one of the better things the United States government has going?
We speak of the duck stamp.
Essentially a national license for hunting migratory waterfowl, the stamp — now costing $25 and each year featuring a different painting of a duck, goose or swan — must be affixed to every hunter’s state permit. The proceeds are used to acquire new lands for a national archipelago of wildlife preserves, including this bird-rich stretch of tidal Delaware, 95 percent of which was purchased with duck-stamp money.
Now the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed making the traditional waterfowl share space on the stamps with birds that are not hunted, like herons or hawks. The idea, officials say, is to drum up more interest in the stamps from birders while preserving the loyalty of duck hunters.
But they have been taken aback by the vociferous opposition. Some duck hunters resent what they see as the downgrading of game birds. The artists who paint the images call the proposal an aesthetic disaster, and even many birders call it a pointless step that could kill the golden goose.
“Birders aren’t going to go out and buy a duck stamp because it has a little oriole on it,” said Adam Grimm, an artist in South Dakota who has twice won the fierce annual competition for stamp design. For painters trying to create a striking tableau, he said, the proposal “is going to open up such a can of worms.”
The issue is so divisive that it has strained friendships. The American Birding Association won’t even take a stand one way or the other for fear of offending someone.
“Birders and hunters, we all want this,” said Jeffrey A. Gordon, the association’s president, gazing over the Bombay Hook refuge last week as tree swallows whirled and an osprey soared above. His group, which has its headquarters nearby, promotes duck stamps as a way to support the preserves even though few of its members would dream of hoisting a shotgun.
Congress created the stamps in the Dust Bowl year of 1934 to help protect migratory waterfowl. New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps provided workers to build roads, observation towers and canals in the protected areas.
In a brilliant stroke, officials turned the stamps into miniworks of art, featuring a new rendering of a waterfowl species each year. Since 1949, the annual search has been run as a public competition that, for a certain breed of artist, is akin to the Super Bowl. It was even memorialized with a comic mention in the movie “Fargo.”
Everyone seemed to benefit. Hunters were happy to buy duck stamps because they supported prime locations for their migratory prey. Many bird-watchers bought them because the marshes and waterways saved for waterfowl also provide crucial habitat for migrating songbirds and shorebirds, not to mention resident frogs and otters. And the stamps became collectors’ items in their own right.
Still, the vast majority are purchased by the 1.1 million waterfowl hunters who must do so. Annual sales of duck stamps have hovered around 1.5 million, compared with two million in the 1970s.
“The population of duck hunters, our main customers, is declining and aging,” said Daniel M. Ashe, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. “So we need to look at diversifying the customer base for the duck stamp.”
In a notice published in February, the agency proposed that the paintings continue to feature a waterfowl species, but also include, in a cameo role, a second species that might be found in the same habitat.
Adding the second bird has been pushed by Friends of the Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp, a private organization that sees this as a way to win wider support.
“There are 36 to 40 million visitors to the refuge system every year and more of them should be buying stamps,” said Paul J. Baicich, the president of the group.
“We don’t want to change the tradition of the stamp. We just want to add to it,” he said. “To put a sandhill crane or a bald eagle or, goodness knows, a yellow-headed blackbird in the background would be cool.”
The proposed change was open to public comments through late March. A large majority opposed the plan.
“Don’t mess up a wildly successful program,” read a typical statement. “Why do bureaucrats think they have to continually stir the pot?” asked another.
But a supporter wrote: “What a wonderful way to grow and promote the conservation of birds!”
Responding to artists’ complaints about uncertainty as they work on this year’s entries, the federal agency recently said that including a second species would be optional in the 2016 competition, to be judged in September. But final rules governing future years will be issued in the coming months.
Mr. Grimm, the artist, said entrants spent months creating their paintings. Just the day before, he said, he spent six hours lying on snowy ground, trying to get the best duck photograph to work from.
“You want the perfect drake, the perfect hen,” he said. “You want your painting to pop.”
Adding a second species, he said, “is going to make it more difficult to get that ideal image” in the allotted space. The paintings must be 7 inches by 10 inches; the winning image is reduced to a stamp measuring 1.5 inches by 1.75 inches.
But Mr. Baicich said the new rules could inspire artists to new heights. “If the artists don’t like change, they’ll hate irrelevance,” he added.
Covering more than 16,000 acres of tidal wetlands, Bombay Hook — about eight miles northeast of Dover, along the Delaware Bay — is part of a chain of preserves along the Atlantic Flyway and exemplifies the fruits of the duck stamps. It offers duck and goose hunting in the fall and winter, and excellent birding year-round.
During a visit in late March, it was hard to go five minutes without seeing bald eagles, cruising in pairs. Great blue herons strutted among northern shovelers — ducks with bills the size of small spatulas — and ring-necked ducks with Art Deco patterns of black and white.
In the distance, the steaming tower of a nuclear power plant was a reminder of an encroaching civilization.
Some opponents of the design change have suggested establishing a second stamp for nonhunted birds instead, but that would not have the core, captive market that duck stamps enjoy.
Alternatively, some ask, why not relax the requirement that ducks, geese or swans always dominate? Why not mix it up, allowing other birds to star in some years? That, though, might be a step too far.
“Now you’re talking about very destructive change,” Mr. Ashe, the Fish and Wildlife director, said.
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