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"Optional" Leaves State Conservation Stamps in Limbo

I'm not the most organized guy, as some who know me will readily confirm. Occasionally this leads to risky habits, like failing to open mail in a timely manner. I was reminded of this recently when a piece of mail that had gone missing was found as I sorted through my "examine and throw" pile. This pile contains mostly publications, advertising, and so-called "junk mail."

The above-described item, certainly not junk mail, bore the return address of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It had the familiar tear-off ends of the self-mailers in which both U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Minnesota conservation stamps arrive. Inside, unopened for weeks, was the Minnesota migratory waterfowl stamp, or duck stamp.

Ironic that I would find it after the first major winter storm of the season arrived. The storm dumped many inches of snow over a wide area of Northern Minnesota, and its sub-freezing aftermath froze many smaller wetlands, hastening the departure of many ducks and geese in a migratory evacuation.

Though a required purchase, the Minnesota stamp is no longer required to be carried by hunters. In fact, the $7.50 payment gets you one line of text on your small game license, which reads "state waterfowl stamp validation." The physical pictorial stamp is a 75 cent option. If you pay for it, you'll receive it by mail within a few weeks. What you do with it then is your business, for a game warden will only care that you have the printed validation on your license.

The image on the 2016 Minnesota waterfowl stamp is an American widgeon, a beautiful but not-so-common species for state hunters. The original painting for the stamp was done by Duluth artist Ed DuRose. I remember Ed submitting artwork to a regional publication I worked for in the 1970's, Fins & Feathers magazine. His work showed potential, but understandably bore the stamp of inexperience. Ed's winning entry in this year's Minnesota migratory waterfowl stamp contest captures the uniqueness of this bird perfectly, and demonstrates what perseverance and a no-quit attitude can accomplish for an artist.

The best-known of these conservation stamps, however, is the federal "duck stamp," a licensing requirement for migratory bird hunters, the vast majority of which are duck and goose hunters. The federal stamp has been around since 1934, the proceeds from its sale used to acquire, improve, and secure public access to wildlife-producing wetlands. Both game and nongame wildlife have benefitted tremendously. The federal duck stamp also doubles as a pass for free entry into any national wildlife refuge that charges an entrance fee.

The various states got on the conservation stamp bandwagon much later, including Minnesota, which now has five: waterfowl, trout & salmon, pheasant, wild turkey, and walleye. The waterfowl, pheasant, and trout & salmon stamp must be purchased to hunt or fish for these species. Wild turkey and walleye stamp purchases provide funding for these species' management, but are not required of turkey hunters or those who fish for walleyes.

The first Minnesota conservation stamp arrived in 1977, the result of an effective lobbying effort at the Minnesota Legislature by the Minnesota Waterfowl Association. MWA is a very active state conservation group dedicated to raising funds for waterfowl management projects within Minnesota's borders. Back then you had to have both the federal and state stamps "on your person." In those days you could buy a federal duck stamp at a U.S Postal Service branch. Hunting licenses could be obtained at most sport shops, and many hardware stores.

Today you wouldn't dream of stopping at a local hardware store for your license and stamps. Many sporting goods and bait-and-tackle shops have since ditched the license business, too, leaving it to the "big box" retailers who sell sporting goods, and some high-traffic gas-and-convenience chains. Online purchase of hunting and fishing licenses is becoming as everyday as buying books or clothes or housewares from Amazon. Even the retailers who sell licenses no longer have those conservation stamps in a book under their counter. If purchased, you'll get them in the mail several weeks after your in-store purchase.

The only stamp still required on the person of a Minnesota sportsman or woman is the federal duck stamp. To accommodate the elapsed time between purchase and delivery by mail, there is a 45-day grace period between the purchase date on your state small game license, and the date when you have to have the stamp in your possession, your signature prominently written across its face.

Perhaps it's the nostalgia of upper middle age, but I think something was lost when Minnesota stopped requiring hunters and anglers to possess and carry these conservation stamps. The stamp was a ticket that entitled you to pursue those ducks, or pheasants, or trout. Without it, the extra fee on your license seems more like a use tax than a rallying cry and a conservation contribution.

There is also amazing beauty in the artwork that graces these conservation stamps. But many never see these images because they decline the 75 cent charge to have the pictorial stamp mailed to them. What's the purpose of holding an annual conservation stamp artwork competition if possessing the stamp is only an option?

The answer offered will probably be that it costs money to print and mail conservation stamps. Money may be saved every time a hunter or angler declines the physical stamp. But if receiving them is an option, quantities must still be printed; there is little difference in the cost of small printing runs and large ones. Would license outlets balk at dispensing conservation stamps? Perhaps, but many of those retailers that still offer licenses reap big profits from the gear they sell when customers some in to buy a license.

Alternatively, Minnesota could adopt the federal duck stamp approach, and require that your conservation stamp be in your possession after a reasonable mailing grace period. Of course, that would be bucking a growing trend toward simplifying license purchase, including doing it entirely online.

Is it my imagination, or am I hearing chants of "old-fashioned" out there in the distance?