When I read news stories about the upcoming hunting season, it’s no great stretch to make the assumption that one of my dogs is going to be getting a whole lot more mouthfuls of feathers than the other one. Duck populations (depending on species) are at record or near-record highs while many upland bird species continue to slide toward historic lows.
Just in my region, the lesser prairie chicken – once the most populous upland gamebird species on the southern plains, so numerous it was market-hunted by the millions – will most likely be listed under the ESA. Meanwhile, populations of the bobwhite quail, King Bob (in many hunters’ minds the very epitome of the upland hunting experience) are at range-wide, all-time, never-seen-before, staring-into-the-abyss lows.
But it wasn’t that long ago when duck hunters were the ones asking themselves if this was the beginning of the end. And if it was, they were at least going to go down swinging. So began the federal duck stamp program in 1934. Anyone wishing to hunt waterfowl would be required to buy a federal migratory bird hunting stamp. The result is, of course, our beautiful, priceless, world-famous, uniquely American and completely self-funded national wildlife refuge system. Where would modern American wildfowling be without the myriad benefits of the duck stamp program? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it’d be nowhere near what it is today.
With that in mind, here’s a question: How much is upland hunting worth to you? Can you assign a monetary value to the experience of watching your dogs work a field, or taking your child on their first bird hunt? What’s the economic threshold of your commitment? Would, say, an additional fifteen bucks or so be enough to reach the tipping point at which you say screw it and go take up something utterly worthless and banal, like golf?
But here’s a question I’ve been kicking around in my head for a while now: would it be possible to emulate the structure and the success of the duck stamp program, but with upland gamebirds as the target species? And if it were possible, would now be the time to do it?
I think the parallels between the basic problems facing ducks at the turn of the century and upland birds now are obvious: precipitous declines in populations brought on by a steep and ever-accelerating loss of habitat. Of course, there are also some fundamental differences, too. Ducks and geese are migratory and therefore require a certain level of federal involvement, whereas most upland species are not. For lack of a better term (and for better or worse) upland birds like quail are “states’ rights” birds.
And to what uses or goals would those funds be applied and allocated? National wildlife refuges focused on upland habitat? Research? Education? And more importantly, what species? Admittedly, there are a host of technical and ecological roadblocks to implementing a federal upland bird recovery program. Daunting, to be sure, but not insurmountable. And with the looming threat of federal involvement in the management of several threatened upland bird species, anyway, perhaps it’s time to look forward by taking a look back into history. What do you think? Would you be in favor of a federal upland bird stamp structured like the duck stamp program? I’d buy a federal quail stamp, how about you?