22 December 2017
In late November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposal to require art entries in the 2018 Federal Duck Stamp contest to include one or more visual elements that would focus on the theme of "celebrating our waterfowl hunting heritage." Simultaneously, the Service also proposed that all selected contest judges must have "an understanding and appreciation of America's waterfowl hunting heritage and be able to recognize scenery or objects related to waterfowl hunting." The public was invited to send in comments, something that our readers, regardless of their view on this particular subject, may wish to consider.
Our group, the Friends of the Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp, has welcomed the opportunity to make comments on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to recognize the contribution of waterfowl hunters on the 2018 stamp.
The proposal clearly indicates that the Service has an interest in making some changes in the program, at least on the part of the artwork for one year, that may draw attention to the wetland – and grassland – conservation achievements of the stamp, achievements made through sales to waterfowl hunters. We can easily imagine that such a requirement involving one or more additional visual elements to "celebrate our waterfowl hunting heritage" might include an image of a hunter or hunters, a hunting blind, hunting dog, and/or camo-covered boat into the background.
While we feel that there is nothing wrong in requiring art changes to draw attention to the importance of the stamp, we doubt that this particular proposal, viewed alone, will serve to "grow" the stamp, producing greater appreciation and increasing sales.
We feel that this proposal, if made within the context of a larger, meaningful plan to expand appreciation and sales, would be very good. But this change, simply proposed alone and dropped into the rules, represents a missed opportunity. Therefore, we suggest not rejection, but rethinking.
Our group could think of at least five potential suggestions worthy of discussion that would emphasize the conservation issues confronting the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, the revised name of the stamp since 1977. Such ideas might include:
- A requirement for one year with background showing vital habitat (no close portraits). Reasoning: this could emphasize the importance of wetland and/or grassland to the particular species portrayed.
- A requirement showing only female ducks at nests or with young. Reasoning: this could emphasize the essential role of the more cryptic females in incubating/raising the young ducks (not necessarily geese and swans) and the fact that the artists historically have tended to focus on painting the males of the species.
- Restricting the choices for one or more years to the more sea-bound species of the seaducks. This would focus on the three scoters, four eiders, long-tailed duck, and harlequin duck. Reasoning: These species have been seen to be among the most at-risk species at one or another level, and more conservation attention should be directed to them. In addition, the three scoters – black, white-winged-and surf – have only appeared once each in history of the stamp.
- A requirement showing "food" as an added feature in the image. While this may be difficult, perhaps showing the waterfowl – multiple birds? – dabbling, dipping, and up-ending or perhaps consuming some vegetable or animal matter as food, it would be highly instructive. This requirement might be not unlike suggestion #1, the habitat requirement, but more artistically demanding. Reasoning: habitat without food is meaningless.
- The requirement of the inclusion of a migratory non-waterfowl in the background, a suggestion we previously made. There is some time for this idea; it might be best in 2020, celebrating the centennial of the Supreme Court decision upholding the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). Reasoning: Showing a secondary bird species would emphasize that other migratory birds, beyond waterfowl, are important beneficiaries of the conservation effort driven by the waterfowl-dominated stamp.
These five suggestions are among those that might be considered in a longer-range plan for artwork and the stamp, all stressing the conservation functions of the stamp.
There are two other creative suggestions that could enter the mix, although neither has an intrinsic conservation/biological message:
- The current suggestion on the "waterfowl hunting heritage" that might give the hunters and the hunting culture a well-earned position on the stamp itself.
- The inclusion of an "old-style black-and-white" version of the stamp for one year, a version which would highlight the history of the stamp and the role of collectors.
These ideas – seven in total – are provided to suggest an approach to the stamp in a new way for multiple years. But none of these should be presented in the absence of an overall plan.
It is vital that multiple stakeholders be tapped for their ideas (e.g., artists, waterfowl hunters, wetland conservationists, collectors, Friends, state wildlife agencies, and the birders and wildlife photographers who increasingly visit the NWRs that are the beneficiaries of stamp dollars). The changes – if any – would need serious buy-in, The potential risk – such as a decline in art entries – would have to be identified and addressed. In addition, the wisdom of showcasing other constituencies who buy and benefit from the stamp program may also need addressing (e.g., non-waterfowl hunters, wildlife photographers, bird watchers, and environmental educators).
The ultimate goal would be educational and institutional – to grow the appreciation and the sales of the stamp.
Finally, two further comments are necessary.
First, there have been alternate suggestions that any art changes on the stamp be "recommended" and not "required." If an art change is well-defined, well-thought-out, and well-justified, it should be required. If a change is only "recommended," the waterfowl artists are in a quandary, not knowing whether non-inclusion of the feature will be a disadvantage when the artwork is judged.
Which brings us to our last rule comment, concerning the judges. The new proposed rule that the 2018 judges "must have an understanding and appreciation of America's waterfowl hunting heritage and be able to recognize scenery or objects related to waterfowl hunting" is too restrictive. Historically speaking, the previous judges have been chosen for their knowledge of waterfowl, biology, stamp design, wildlife art, collecting, hunting, and other vital characteristics. The mix has always been difficult, but the chosen judges have consistently represented broad interests. One would think that a "special-requirement contest" as outlined in the seven potential options above would have to include multiple individuals with a serious knowledge of the particular annual requirement. But other interests – especially design and art sensitivity – must be included. The Federal Duck Stamp Office needs only to be given general advice on the selection of a mix of judges, not be limited by restrictive requirements.
In summary, approaching the historic Federal Duck Stamp program with new art, appreciation, and sales priorities is admirable and is supported by the Friends of the Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp. But such a renewal and re-commitment needs to be an effort that goes beyond one year's rules, one that takes a step back for a broader look at the program, one that includes multiple stakeholders, and one that must be driven by the intent to increase appreciation and the sales of the stamp.