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Ducks Unlimited Celebrates 85 Years of Conservation

In 1937, a group of hunters set out to improve duck populations and in doing so, they rewrote America's conservation playbook.

Ducks Unlimited Celebrates 85 Years of Conservation

Ducks Unlimited has set the standard for hunter-based wildlife conservation efforts in North America, but the fight isn’t over. (Photo courtesy of Ducks Unlimited)

The 1930s were a difficult time for Americans. The Great Depression left many families destitute, and farmers attempted to make up for their losses and low crop values by cultivating more land. To make matter worse, the Great Plains and Midwest experienced severe drought throughout the 1930s, and this lack of water coupled with increased agricultural pressure damaged fragile prairie grasses from the Llano Estacado of Texas to the boreal forests in Canada. Topsoil on the Plains that had accumulated over millennia dried and was blown as far away as New York City, where ships in Long Island Sound lay cloaked by the dust of the dying prairie thousands of miles away.

Things were no better in Canada. Vast wetlands in Alberta, Manitoba, and other provinces were drained so that the land could be cultivated. However, the soil beneath these marshes, which contained high levels of peat, proved poor for farming. Worse yet, the peat dried and easily caught fire. Draining marshes also damaged the water table on the Canadian prairie. Families who were already contending with the greatest drought in living memory suddenly found their wells dry.

Like those wells, Canada’s waterfowl populations had been depleted. Breeding birds found their Canadian nesting grounds destroyed and waterfowl populations plunged on both sides of the border. As a result, in the United States, bird refuges were established, and the first Federal Duck Stamp was issued in 1934. The Bureau of Biological Survey, forerunner of today’s U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, spent funds on habitat restoration projects in the United States but could do nothing in Canada. By 1936, the waterfowl season was shortened to just 30 days, and species like canvasbacks, brant, wood ducks, buffleheads, redheads, and others were fully protected. Live decoys, bait, and shotguns larger than 10-gauge were banned. Some hunters predicted that by 1937 waterfowl hunting would be closed entirely. Others believed it might be too late to save America’s waterfowl.

At a fishing lodge on the banks of the Beaverkill River in New York, publisher Joseph Palmer Knapp discussed the decline in duck numbers with Ray E. Benson, publicity director for the More Game Birds in America Foundation. Joining Knapp and Benson were John Huntington, who had opened the Game Conservation Institute in New Jersey, and Arthur Bartley, vice president of More Game Birds in America and the foundation’s field director. More Game Birds had helped improve upland bird numbers by incentivizing farmers to raise and release game birds like quail and pheasants and to provide suitable habitat for these birds. However, because wild ducks migrated and could not be domesticated, the model which More Game Birds used would not work to improve duck populations. Instead, these men decided that conserving habitat would be the key to saving ducks.

The challenge, of course, was that unlike domesticated game birds which remained in one small geographic area throughout their lives, waterfowl relied on healthy habitat along migration routes that stretched from Canada to Mexico. The Bureau of Biological Survey’s funds could not be used in Canada, which was home to millions of acres of critical nesting habitat. Any conservation program aimed at increasing waterfowl populations would require multinational efforts.

Knapp suggested the new organization be called “Ducks.” Bartley pointed out that Canadian corporations must include the term “Limited,” but Knapp despised the name “Ducks, Limited.”

“Dammit,” Knapp said, “we don’t want limited ducks!”

Then Bartley suggested “Ducks Unlimited,” and the most important waterfowl conservation organization in the nation was born.  

duck decoys and sunrise in the marsh
Today, gun dogs and hunters enjoy abundant waterfowl hunting opportunities thanks to DU's conservation efforts. (Photo By: Mike Clingan)

A Win for Waterfowl  

Two years before Ducks Unlimited (DU) was established, More Game Birds laid the foundation for waterfowl conservation by financing what was, at the time, the most widespread census of waterfowl populations ever conducted. In 1935, More Game Birds funded an aerial survey called the 1935 International Wild Duck Census. The first aerial census of its kind, the 1935 International Wild Duck Census helped estimate duck populations from the Great Slave Lake in Canada to the Upper Midwestern United States. Aerial surveys were bolstered by ground counts that required 1,500 volunteers, and it was estimated that there were roughly 40 million ducks in Canada and 2.2 million birds in the United States in the spring of 1935. Such aerial surveys would become a hallmark of waterfowl conservation, and they also made it clear that any effort to increase and preserve waterfowl populations must target the plains of central Canada—America’s “Duck Factory.”

Using this data as a baseline, Ducks Unlimited was incorporated on January 29, 1937 in the United States and Ducks Unlimited Canada was established in Winnipeg on March 10th of that year. The goal of these organizations was to collect funds from waterfowl hunters to continue aerial surveys and restore vital habitat, particularly in key Canadian nesting areas that had been drained for agriculture. More Game Birds provided the initial funds required to begin research and marketing for Ducks Unlimited and Ducks Unlimited Canada.

In 1938, DU provided $100,000 in funding to DU Canada to restore habitat and finance aerial surveys. DU Canada hired Thomas Main, chief surface water engineer for the Canadian National Railways and an avid waterfowl hunter, to oversee the efforts. Waterfowl expert Bertram Cartwright of the Natural History Society of Manitoba was hired as DU Canada’s first naturalist that same year.

In April of 1938, Main, Cartwright and other leading members of DU Canada, organized DU’s first restoration project at Big Grass Marsh in Manitoba. Drained in 1916 to provide more tillable land for agriculture, Big Grass Marsh, like many other drained wetlands, proved unsuitable for agriculture. Local farmers who had lost money on agriculture were happy to accept work during the restoration of Big Grass Marsh, and a control gate dam was erected to protect nearby farmland from flooding. Other projects followed, and by the end of 1938 and after only eight months in existence, DU Canada had restored and preserved over 150,000 acres of vital nesting habitat. In 1940, the More Game Birds of America Foundation, which had helped found Ducks Unlimited, ceased to exist, and all of More Game Birds assets were transferred to DU.

Hunters across Canada and the United States began taking note of DU’s successes and pledges increased. In Texas, California, and Arkansas, hunters donated thousands of dollars to DU’s efforts and made headlines in local newspapers. Gordon MacQuarrie, famed outdoor columnist for the Milwaukee Journal, praised DU’s efforts and helped raise awareness for the organization in Wisconsin. DU began selling “subscriptions” that promised pledges for five years, and shotguns and ammunition were raffled at meetings to raise money. As these funds flowed into the organization, the work and vision of DU expanded. During the 1940s, hundreds of thousands of additional acres in the United States and Canada was reverted to waterfowl breeding habitat by DU. Louisiana oil baron, Alfred C. Glassell, was so impressed by DU’s efforts that he traveled to Canada to witness the restoration first-hand. Upon returning to Louisiana, Glassell called a meeting of Shreveport duck hunters and donated $1,000 to DU Canada’s efforts, demanding that other hunters do the same (rumor has it that Glassell saw a check for $500 on the donation plate, swept it to the floor, and prompted the donor to double the amount—which the donor did). Glassell later served as president of DU in 1944 and 1945.


As restoration efforts increased, so did funding efforts. The Greenhead Duck Club in California placed a donation can on the wall of the clubhouse during poker night, suggesting that members pledge ten percent of their winnings. Thomas Main calculated that each nickel donated added one additional duck to the population, and “Duk-a-Nikel” donation cans (provided to DU free of charge by the American Can Company) began appearing in hunting lodges, hotels, and lodges. By 1946, DU donations tallied over $442,000. By 1956, over $600,000 was donated annually. DU’s model of conservation fundraising, which was based in part on banquets where hunters could donate funds and win prizes in raffles and auctions, has been successfully used by other organizations.

During the mid-twentieth century, DU volunteers and donors continued to expand wetland habitat in Canada. In the 1950s, bush pilots flying over Hay Lake in Alberta reported that water levels in this critical duck breeding marsh were rapidly declining, a result of eroding outlet channels. DU financed restoration efforts, which were very costly and challenging because of the lake’s remote location, and by 1957, 80,000 acres of vital wetland habitat surrounding the lake had been restored.

By the 1960s, DU had restored over 750 nesting wetlands and 800 dams and water control structures and memberships and funding was at an all-time high. However, drought returned to the nation during that decade, decimating waterfowl populations. Mallards were particularly hit hard.

By 1965, the mallard population fell to just 4.5 million birds, a decline of nearly 66 percent since the first USFWS survey was conducted a decade earlier. Bag limits were reduced, and hunter numbers began to decline.

shotgun with teal duck decoys
Grass-root efforts from DU have become an example to follow for many other hunter-based conservation organizations. (Photo By: Brad Fitzpatrick)

The 1960s: A Time of Change   

By the 1960s, it was time for DU to revise their fundraising efforts. The best way to do so, it was decided, was to target the growing middle class, many of whom were hunters. Until the 1960s, DU had relied heavily on wealthy donors, but to garner support for the organization throughout the hunting community, the foundation would have to shift focus and include the middle class. More chapters were established, more events were held, and memberships grew. This was thanks in large part to the efforts of Ben Anderson, DU’s first regional director. Anderson was charged with expanding memberships in the Mississippi, Central, and Pacific Flyways, and that required a great deal of time on the road. Everywhere Anderson went, he helped establish DU chapters.

The new model for adding DU members began with dinners that cost as little as $2.50, and at the dinner the mission of DU was explained to the attendees, who oftentimes joined the organization. This grassroots effort paid dividends, and the trend of declining DU memberships was reversed. Dinners became a crucial component of DU’s funding efforts. In 1965, DU dinner revenues accounted for 25 percent of DU’s annual income, but by 1985 dinners accounted for 57 percent of DU’s funding.

Regional directors (RDs) also played an important role in the growth of the organization, and extra RDs were added for every $300,000 in annual income. David Whitesell, who served as DU’s executive vice president and CEO starting in 1965, wanted biologists to serve the role of RDs. It was Whitesell’s belief that biologists understood the mission of DU and could clearly outline the organization’s positive impacts on duck populations.

Whitesell was influential in establishing DU as one of the primary conservation organizations in the country. In 1987, after 22 years of service to DU, Whitesell said, “I think the obtaining of the objectives concerning the habitat portion of the North American plan is exceedingly important. If you don’t obtain that, you can kiss a lot of your waterfowl and habitat goodbye.”

DU’s conservation work in the United States began in 1984. Around that same period, DU became an important voice for conservation in politics by pushing for measures that would further protect habitat and improve duck populations. DU pushed for the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), which incentivized private landowners to restore wetland habitat and became part of the 1990 Farm Bill, one of the most important pieces of conservation legislation passed in recent decades. By 1994, duck populations returned to near record highs following an intense drought, thanks to DU’s efforts on the ground as well as in the halls of congress. During the 1990s, DU relocated their headquarters to Memphis, Tennessee.

In 2000, DU set out to protect valuable habitat across the continent to ensure access to quality habitat throughout the duck’s migration route. Known as Campaign for a Continent—Habitat 2000, the program set out to identify key areas along migration corridors and protect these areas, a project that spanned across Canada and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico.


In 2004, the USFWS reported that more than the United States had lost over 80,000 acres of wetland habitat to agriculture and development each year since 1998, largely the result of supreme court decisions that reduced protections on grassland habitat. DU responded by developing their Wetlands for Tomorrow program to raise $1.7 billion to combat habitat loss. In 2008, DU set out to raise $40 million for the Rescue the Duck Factory campaign, which would purchase conservation easements from willing landowners to permanently protect wildlife habitat. DU’s Grasslands for Tomorrow initiative, which funds easements with private landowners to preserve grasslands and dates back to 1997, protects millions of acres of vital waterfowl habitat from destruction.

mallard drake ducks flying in marsh
The present mallard duck population has grown by nearly 3 million birds since the 1960s. (Photo By: Dean Pearson)

A Fight Hunters Must Win  

Since its beginning in 1937, DU has set the standard for hunter-based wildlife conservation efforts in North America, but the fight isn’t over. As human populations grow so does demand for land for development and agriculture. Were it not for DU, many of the 15 million acres the organization has conserved would be lost—and waterfowl along with it. But DU’s war to protect wildlife is only beginning.

Despite being recognized as one of the leading conservation organizations, DU is nothing more than an extension of dedicated hunters who believe that habitat is worth protecting. We understand DU’s impact on ducks and geese but often overlook how impactful the organization’s efforts have been on a wide variety of other species, from upland and songbirds to amphibians and reptiles. And DU’s work helps humans, too, by providing clean water, flood mitigation, and wetlands that protect topsoil and prevent erosion.

The idea that hunters save wildlife is foreign to a growing percentage of the U.S. population, many of whom are desperately out of touch with the harsh realities of balancing the demands of a burgeoning human population and protecting essential habitat. To continue to protect, waterfowl hunters must stand together in support of organizations that provide us with a voice. Ducks Unlimited continues to ensure that hunters are heard and habitat is protected.

“Born in the Dust Bowl era, Ducks Unlimited has never lost its focus on science-based habitat conservation up and down the migration corridors,” said DU CEO Adam Putnam. “Our volunteers and staff have worked shoulder to shoulder to deliver over 15 million acres of results for the benefit of waterfowl, other wildlife and people. Our work is far from complete and our mission continues even as we pause to celebrate 85 years of mission delivery.”

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