The Federal Register could well be the least-read publication in print. Its role is to make official the rules and regulations issued by the IRS, the Department of Labor, and other federal agencies. It’s certainly the most boring. There are no photographs, political cartoons, want ads, or advertisements; just black text so small you’d reach for your “cheater” eyeglasses if you tried to read it.

I’m familiar with the publication only because part of my “day job” is finding regulatory news for my employer. Every now and then, though, the Federal Register contains something of interest to the outdoors person. Just before Thanksgiving it published a notice about the expanding status of the “electronic federal duck stamp program,” which understandably caught my eye.

For most of my long hunting life, the federal stamp required of those who hunt ducks and geese—the “duck stamp”—was obtained either at a U.S. Post Office branch, or from a merchant who sold hunting licenses. The revenue—the price is now up to $25—is used to purchase and lease wetland habitat for protection within the National Wildlife Refuge system. Many of these refuges permit hunting on selected lands and waters within their boundaries.

In 2005, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service began a three-year pilot program with eight states—including Minnesota—to offer the duck stamp electronically. Under this program, when my hunting buddy and I would stop at Fleet Farm or another sporting goods outlet before the season to purchase our small game hunting license and stamps, we didn’t receive the physical federal stamp, but instead a temporary “endorsement” that entitled us to hunt these game birds.

This endorsement is valid for 45 days while the hunter awaits the arrival of the paper stamp. That paper stamp is to be signed on its face and carried along with the hunter’s license. One benefit of this electronic approach was that it became unnecessary for a license agent to physically stock stamps, and it was easier to avoid running short, or having leftovers. Mine arrived after about three weeks this year. If you purchased yours on the very eve of the waterfowl opener, and only hunted the earliest part of the season, you might never have it on your person while in your duck boat or blind. If you’re a more serious waterfowl hunter, you’d have it while the mid and late season birds were still flying over your decoys. Both types of hunter make their contribution to the cause.

This year’s stamp features a fully-plumed drake wood duck. In the misty background, within stems of cattail, is a wooden decoy of the same species. Fans of collectible decoys will recognize it as a rare example from the Mason Decoy Company of Detroit, Michigan. Continuing a long tradition of Minnesotans dominating the federal duck stamp competition, this composition was painted by Freeport, Minnesota, artist Scott Storm, who topped a field of 150 artists.

Minnesota also has a duck stamp. To hunt ducks or geese within our borders it’s necessary to spend an additional $7.50 beyond the small game license and the federal stamp. The proceeds from our state stamp are used to finance waterfowl habitat management—specifically, Minnesota’s shallow “game lakes”—and waterfowl research. This began in 1977, when the Minnesota Waterfowl Association spearheaded legislation to create the state duck stamp program.

In 2007, rather than raise the price to cover costs, someone conceived the idea of letting hunters pay the conservation fee and have only a “validation” appear on their Minnesota small game hunting license. They could skip receiving the physical stamp, and save 75 cents.

In hindsight, it seems that someone with a basic understanding of consumer behavior might have predicted what would happen. As reported recently by Minneapolis Star-Tribune outdoor writer Tony Kennedy, today only about 13% of state duck and goose hunters opt for the added small charge to get the actual physical state duck stamp.

Whether by coincidence or otherwise, artist interest in the Minnesota duck stamp contest has fallen, too. From contest entries numbering 200 or more in heyday years, the DNR is fortunate now to get much more than a dozen entrants. You can almost hear an artist asking the rhetorical question: “Why go to the trouble of creating artwork when 87% of Minnesota waterfowl hunters won’t see it?” And if few see it, there will be less demand for the limited edition prints that historically were the artist’s payoff.

There are other factors that can’t be ignored. Minnesota has far fewer duck hunters than in peak years. Still, roughly 75-80,000 Minnesota hunters purchase a license and hunt waterfowl each year. But if little more than 10,000 of them will see the winning artist’s work—given the small number that choose to receive the pictorial stamp—the promotional value for an artist is negligible.

It’s true, too, that there is now less demand for limited-edition wildlife art, including waterfowl and waterfowl hunting subjects. The genre exploded in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and a fair amount of mediocre art no doubt diluted interest in the good work. As sexist as it may sound, the greatest interest in wildlife art has been among males, and there are only so many dens, offices, man-caves and garages where wildlife art is welcome. The better wildlife artists have survived, able to secure commissions for original work, without major reliance on the print market.

The soft wildlife art market notwithstanding, I would argue that interest in the Minnesota duck stamp program—interest among both hunters and artists—could have been better maintained if the state had chosen to handle our program like the federals: you pay a fee, get a stamp and have it in your possession when you hunt. At least then, more than a mere 13% of our waterfowl hunters might have had reason to ask: “What do you think of this year’s state duck stamp?”

But does it really matter? To a sentimentalist like me, it does. Over a period spanning well over four decades, duck stamps were my admission ticket to the hunt. They were saved and collected, year over year. I’ve even framed and hung some that were of special significance. When I signed my duck stamps (still required with the federal stamp), I’d walk a fine line between making my signature visible enough to satisfy a conservation officer or federal warden, and not defacing the image more than was absolutely necessary. “What’s the subject this year?…” was one of every season’s anticipations.

As if to challenge the old saying that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” next year digital designers will be able to enter the Minnesota duck stamp contest. That’s how desperate is the effort to stimulate interest in our competition and encourage more entries. Contestants will be able to create entries on an electronic device, rather than with a brush, pen or other art instrument held by a hand and guided by a discriminating eye and intimate knowledge of a bird. A hobbyist-designer reportedly convinced someone with enough influence in the Minnesota Legislature that this should be allowed, and so it will.

Every year I tell the clerk who is processing my small game license, “Yes, I want the actual state duck stamp.” But if a digital designer using a computer “app” is awarded the honor of having their image on the next Minnesota duck stamp, I just might respectfully decline.