A recent poll asked, “When you think of non-governmental organizations that help conserve wildlife and natural resources, who do you think of?” The responses weren't encouraging: a full 63 percent of respondents didn't know of an organization to cite. The Sierra Club and Greenpeace got 8 percent each. Ducks Unlimited garnered but 4 percent.
“This points out the tremendous job we still have to do,” says Bob Benson, manager of Ducks Unlimited media relations. “We must get the word out so Americans know what we're doing on the ground. We're well-known in sporting circles, but outside that, obviously, the recognition drops off.”
To Delta residents, it may seem odd that poll respondents could have missed the ubiquitous Ducks Unlimited stickers affixed to pick-ups and SUVs, the announcements of banquets in newspapers, the Ducks Unlimited wildlife scene T-shirts worn by outdoor types everywhere.
More importantly, though, is that the general public seems to have missed the work done by Ducks Unlimited field biologists all over North America. This work, an effort to lessen the blow of our nation losing more than half its original wetlands (and cope with the 100,000 wetland acres lost annually), is paramount.
“Ducks Unlimited was founded in 1937,” says Benson. “We've conserved, to now, 11 million acres. Currently, we have 660,000 members. There are 50,000 active volunteers across the continent. We have a staff of 641 professionals — about 150 of them at the Memphis headquarters.”
This infrastructure is in place to service conservation plans both near- and long-term.
“We have an international conservation plan that focuses primarily on North America, although it incorporates some of Latin America as well,” says Alan Wentz, Ducks Unlimited group manager for conservation. “Currently, there are 60,000 projects on-going. We have some top priorities to accomplish this plan.”
Among those at the top are the Prairie Pothole region — from Iowa through Nebraska and Montana into Canada — and the vast Boreal Forest, which snakes from Canada into Alaska. These two areas are a Ducks Unlimited focus because they're crucial to duck production.
“The prairies are in kind of a boom-and-bust cycle,” says Wentz. “When there's good water and good cover, large amounts of birds can be produced very quickly. That's particularly true of puddle ducks.”
The Boreal Forest is a more stable environment because water levels don't fluctuate as much. It's primarily wooded, but also contains large amounts of wetlands. It's very productive, but not on the same scale as the prairies.
California's Central Valley and a bit of the coastal area is also very important to ducks. This area is a primary wintering ground for western waterfowl and is under great threat, says Wentz.
Areas of concern in the Delta include the lower Mississippi alluvial valley and the Gulf Coast, where habitat loss “is alarming.” The coast is a primary wintering area for wood ducks.
In setting up plans for the areas, Wentz says three concerns are primary:
Planning. “This is based in research. We have the largest staff of waterfowl scientists of any organization — including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”
Direct Conservation. “This is what comes about from the research.”
Policies. “We're also concerned with policies related to habitat. That concern is primarily focused on federal policy, but also some state policies.”
Ducks Unlimited's habitat work is mostly accomplished through partnerships. “We do own land and work it, but the vast majority of our work is done with state agencies, federal agencies, municipal organizations, corporations and, mostly, private landowner. We primarily work with agricultural landowners.
“Currently, we're directly touching over 250,000 acres annually in the United States alone. Look at the whole continent and that acreage doubles. While we've been around 67 years, Ducks Unlimited has only worked in the United States for the last 20. Only in the last decade or so, have we gotten to such a high number of acres being worked.”
And Ducks Unlimited isn't stopping. “We'll be at 400,000 to 500,000 acres in the next few years if our pace doesn't slacken. We're able to do this because we're one of the top two or three — depending on whether you're counting members, dollars or acres — conservation organizations in the world.”
It's important to know a couple of things, insist both Wentz and Benson. First, it's not just lip service when Ducks Unlimited pledges “science-based conservation across the continent.”
Second, you should know that “Ducks Unlimited isn't just scientifically based, but emotionally based as well,” says Wentz. “Everyone who works for Ducks Unlimited honestly believes this is the right thing to do now and for future generations.”