American landscapes are forever changing as we face the loss of some of our most iconic game bird species. Grassland birds are among the fastest and most consistently declining bird populations in North America and grassland and prairie habitats are the fastest disappearing habitats in the US. Last year, the Gunnison sage grouse and Lesser Prairie-chicken were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Greater Sage Grouse, Greater Prairie-chicken, Sooty Grouse, and Northern Bobwhite have experienced a 40% rate of decline in the last 40 years. Scaled Quail and Sharp-tailed Grouse are also showing steep declines with loss of habitat being the primary cause and ultimate solution.
Upland game are now resting on the same precarious perch as waterfowl stood a century ago. But waterfowl did not survive the early market hunting, farming and development demands of an ever-increasing human population on their own. If it were not for the duck stamp, it’s quite possible certain waterfowl species would never have recovered. It wasn’t until 1934, when a deep concern for the plight of migratory birds set into motion a program that has since raised over $800 million for conservation and added 6 million acres to the National Wildlife Refuge System. Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling’s idea of a Federal Waterfowl Stamp required for hunting migratory waterfowl became a reality with the passage of the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt. The duck stamp has since become an unrivaled conservation legacy.
Duck stamp funds are used to purchase land and ongoing management of those lands providing habitat for critical bird breeding, resting and wintering necessary to support waterfowl populations as well as other wetland dependent species. The majority of stamps are purchased by hunters, providing hunters with recognition for supplying funds that support a natural resource that is enjoyed by all. It is a living example of stewardship and demonstrates the responsibility hunters take for the birds we pursue. The stamp has provided a pattern of inclusiveness that allows for a healthy relationship between sportsmen and the wildlife viewing public. It’s a pattern for success that bird hunters and bird enthusiasts can replicate for upland species.
Today most upland bird hunters consider the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to be the best mechanism for upland habitat conservation. However, the Program’s focus is to provide technical and financial assistance to eligible farmers and ranchers to address soil, water and related natural resource concerns on their lands. Habitat improvements and benefits to wildlife are a fortunate byproduct of the Program, not the focus or intent. The Program cannot keep pace with the price of commodities. In the last five years, there has been a 23% decrease in the land enrolled. The average lease payment to landowners is $66 per acre, drastically lagging crop profits and costing $1.5 billion in tax dollars annually. In contrast, average profits for an acre of corn vary between $200- $325 per acre depending on yield and fuel, fertilizer and other outlays. It stands to reason that, in order to prevent further loss of enrolled land, CRP payments would need to compete with crop returns.
The Conservation Reserve Program is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and embedded in the Farm Bill. The strategic plan of the USDA is to expand markets for agricultural products, support international economic development, expand job opportunities, improve infrastructure in rural America, enhance food safety, improve nutrition and health, and manage and protect public and private lands. Although CRP provides large scale, direct and measurable benefits to wildlife and habitat, the Farm Bill is a politically-charged piece of legislation addressing food, farms and jobs. Funds allocated for conservation in the latest Farm Bill have decreased by $4 billion over a five-year span. A conservation mechanism outside of agricultural interests and free of commodity demands is necessary to continue to prevent habitat loss and fragmentation for declining upland game species as well as other non-game grassland species.
In a country that values agriculture, ranching, and oil and gas exploration and takes pride in the work ethic of farmers and laborers, a balance has not yet been reached between maximizing productivity and conserving the existing landscape and wildlife. The effect of insatiable growth on native birds is fragmentation of habitat and disruption of their movement and mating patterns, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Upland game species do not require untouched wilderness to thrive. Just the opposite is often true. A healthy population of upland birds indicates a healthy ecosystem, and many species can thrive around agriculture so long as the working landscape does not squander its hedgerows, thickets, fence rows, woodlots, and other shelters allowing birds the cover they need.
What could an upland stamp do?
Ding Darling’s idea for a federal duck stamp combined his abilities as an artist and ardent conservationist to create the stamp both as an idea and a reality. The first stamp featured his own brush and ink design of two mallards dropping down to a body of water and was the first in a long history of stamp designs meant to arouse a positive emotional response from the viewer. The benefits of an upland stamp to conservationists, collectors, and artists includes an educational aspect and opportunity to highlight the cultural value of upland game species to broader audiences.
The existence of a healthy population of upland birds represents the American countryside at its best. Unlike waterfowl, which migrate and are easily seen in the sky and on the water, upland birds are often nesting in our neighboring woods and fields. They are elusive and camouflaged to their varied environments, hiding invisibly in fence lines, coverts, plum thickets and sagebrush. The stories of upland game birds that hunters have cherished for over two centuries are coming face to face with becoming a forgotten past.
An upland stamp will face hurdles. There will be opportunities to discuss mechanisms and decide appropriate use of funds generated by an upland stamp managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Ultimately, the recovery of declining wildlife populations requires the voice of conservationists, and it is the objective of the Fish and Wildlife Service to assist in the development and application of an environmental stewardship ethic for our society, based on ecological principles, scientific knowledge of fish and wildlife, and a sense of moral responsibility as well as administer a national program to provide the public opportunities to understand, appreciate, and wisely use fish and wildlife resources.
Now is the time to call for saving our upland bird heritage. Now is the time to make upland conservation a priority alongside economic interest. Upland hunters have a unique understanding of why upland conservation must be a priority, and we have an opportunity to lead the charge, much like waterfowl hunters have with the purchase of stamps for decades.
Join us in calling for the creation of the Federal Upland Stamp and be a part of conservation and grassroots history.