“It just isn’t worthwhile to go duck hunting these days — having to get up early in the morning or sit out in hard weather for a shot or two all day. I wouldn’t want my son to pursue a sport that I love so well that has sunk to such a low level after the way I have known it.”

Those words are not my own, though I have more than once muttered a similar sentiment.

They are from Michael Furtman in his new book: “The Ducks Unlimited Story: Conservation for Generations.” And they refer to a time — three-quarters of a century ago — when the economy and the state of waterfowl and waterfowling were far worse than today.

The country and the world were in the midst of the Great Depression. Years of drought and draining had transformed what was once the most productive region in North America, for both agriculture and waterfowl, into a barren wasteland of dry, cracked earth. With critical nesting, stopover and wintering habitat gone, duck populations plummeted.

“Disasters have a way of spawning ideas,” writes Furtman. “In the face of such challenges, some people buck, but others simply roll up their sleeves to repair and protect, creating the tools to do so, creating organizations to respond.”

Such was the case for Ducks Unlimited (DU).

The seeds of one of North America’s most successful nonprofit conservation organizations sprouted in a fishing camp in upstate New York’s famed Beaverkill River, drawing from the fertile soils of an organization called the More Game Birds in North America Foundation. The DU name came from discussions acknowledging that the organization would have to include both the U.S. and Canada, the latter where corporations are legally designated as “Limited.” One of the founders reportedly snapped, “Dammit, we don’t want limited ducks!”

To which another retorted, “Ducks Unlimited, then.” And so it came to be.

It would be impossible to tell the whole story of DU in this column, this section, or even an entire issue of this paper. Many books have been written about the oppressive drought of the 1930s and how it ultimately helped spawn the modern wildlife conservation movement. And now, thanks to Furtman, there’s a comprehensive history of DU and how their efforts helped restore the fall flights.

Their mission, to conserve, restore and manage wetlands and associated habitats for North America’s waterfowl, is funded largely through volunteer-based grassroots efforts. The model they created has been duplicated, successfully, many times over by other conservation groups. DU volunteers now hold more than 4,000 grassroots fundraising events annually, including member and sponsor banquets, shooting and fishing tournaments and other outings.

Maine has a very active chapter, with roughly 2,500 members in 14 regional committees. In 2010, they raised over $150,000 through 19 fundraising events consisting of banquets, Duckfest, and an annual outdoor Waterfowl Party that includes decoy carving, retrieving duck boats and calling demonstrations and competitions.

DU fundraising efforts have conserved nearly 12.5 million acres of important waterfowl habitat in the U.S. (4.4 million), Canada (6.2 million) and Mexico (1.8 million), and influenced the protection and management of an additional 61 million acres. While much of the money goes to the most imperiled areas, like the prairie pothole region, some money remains in the states where it was raised.

Approximately $1.8 million DU dollars have been spent in Maine, much in over 30 MARSH (Matching Aid to Restore State Habitat) projects, which qualify for matching federal funds.

Waterfowl and waterfowl hunting are in much better shape now than 75 years ago, but vital wetland habitat that benefits not only waterfowl, but a host of other nongame, threatened and endangered species continues to be lost or degraded at an alarming rate. Declines are further exacerbated by recent droughts. The fight to preserve wetland habitat must continue, or we may once again have legitimate cause to rue the present and long for the good old days.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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