I learned recently, to my disbelief and personal regret, that one of the most significant of Minnesota’s conservation groups will be no more. By a vote of its Board of Directors, the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, or MWA, will cease to exist on Sept. 30. MWA was the “stay-at-home” conservation sibling of the much better known Ducks Unlimited; not nearly as visible, but unquestionably successful at what it had set out to do.

What it set out to do 52 years ago was to reverse a tide of lost Minnesota wetlands and degraded shallow game lakes, habitats vital to the production not only of ducks and geese, but shorebirds, songbirds, muskrats, pheasants, deer and other creatures that thrive in these places. While DU for much of its history spent most of its membership dollars on habitat projects in Canada—the so-called “duck factory”—MWA often used the slogan “Minnesota Bucks for Minnesota Ducks.” Its funds were spent here.

In 1967 when the group was chartered, it was called the Southern Minnesota Waterfowl Association, but within the next decade its mission and influence were extended to cover the entire state, and its name was changed to reflect this. While it’s true that some of the state’s premier and most famous wildfowling destinations are in southern Minnesota, wetland habitat loss and the pressing need to preserve and rehabilitate wetlands is a border-to-border challenge.

Perhaps the most visible accomplishment of MWA was first conceiving and then motivating state lawmakers to establish the state duck stamp. Along with the federal stamp, it’s required of all adult waterfowl hunters. The dollars from its purchase are used for the management of our shallow game lakes. These lakes’ value is in their benefits to wildlife, rather than fish.

MWA was not only the driving force behind the state duck stamp program, but also the Minnesota Wetlands Conservation Act of 1991. It provided a mechanism for restoring or creating new wetlands when others are drained or filled. In addition, MWA’s state chapters have participated in more than 600 wetland restoration projects in 50 of the state’s 87 counties.

MWA was the first conservation organization in which I became personally active. My North Central Minnesota community and surrounding area had an enthusiastic chapter that held fundraising banquets and provided dollars and muscle for wetland habitat improvement projects. The shared enthusiasm of like-minded, committed sportsmen was a heady thing to be a part of.

Unfortunately, there can be burn-out in organizations, just as there is in professions, especially when there is a shortage of experienced leaders. The time and energy drain eventually demand a break, even if it’s to become involved in other conservation organizations. This MWA chapter eventually dissolved, with some of its members affiliating with chapters elsewhere.

Meanwhile, larger events in hunting were conspiring to weaken MWA. Sales of federal duck stamps, required of those age 16 and older to hunt ducks and geese, numbered 150,500 in Minnesota in 1957. In 2017, 60 years and roughly two generations later, duck stamp sales had dropped to roughly 83,000. The reasons are manifold. They include fewer ducks, fewer quality places to hunt them, the significant financial and equipment investment needed for this hunting specialty, and the sheer labor that is part of the sport.

There is also a demographic factor. “Serious duck hunters” are aging out of the sport, and there have been too few young waterfowl hunters joining the ranks to replace them. Fewer duck hunters has meant fewer who are willing to open their wallets for membership dues, or willing to become involved as volunteers.

There is also a seemingly endless number of places to spend one’s membership dollars, and good causes to devote one’s energy and time to. Ducks Unlimited has always been more successful in recruiting and retaining members. Once DU began devoting dollars to wetland habitat projects within Minnesota’s borders—DU now coordinates the state’s game lake program—some may have felt there was less need to belong to two waterfowl-oriented organizations.

Besides DU, there’s Pheasants Forever, the Delta Waterfowl Foundation, National Wild Turkey Federation, the Ruffed Grouse Society, Trout Unlimited, Muskies Incorporated, Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, the Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society, Federation of Fly Fishers, Prairie Chicken Society and many others up and down the alphabet. To which you can add the price of dues for membership in a clay target or shooting range club, fishing and hunting licenses and stamps, and so on. The sportsman’s dollar will only stretch so far.

MWA also suffered some damage to its reputation in 2003, when a state legislative auditor found that the organization had made missteps in administering grant and state lottery funds earmarked for a habitat restoration program called Habitat Corridors. MWA had about 10,000 members at that time, and has just 2,500—give or take—today. If the decline in membership since then is not a case of cause-and-effect, that event certainly was not a plus.

After finishing yet another account of this unfortunate news, a flip of the page brought me some cheer. There were several photographs of youngsters who had participated in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Youth Waterfowl Weekend, which was held on the first weekend of September. Youths age 17 and under could hunt for all species of waterfowl legal during the 2019 season if accompanied by a non-hunting adult.

The event is part of the DNR’s hunter recruitment program, and gives novice hunters an opportunity to “get their feet wet” in a less competitive environment than on a typical opening day. It also makes it easier to find willing mentors to accompany these youth, mentors who won’t have to miss their own opening day tradition two weeks later.

What impressed me most about the photographs was not the wood ducks or the Canada geese that these young hunters had bagged. It was the smiles that were etched on their faces in these proud moments. These are the duck hunters of tomorrow. The MWA may be no more. But if these images are any indication, there’s still hope for the future of waterfowl hunting in Minnesota.