August 2008 marks the 50th anniversary of a habitat conservation initiative to protect habitat in the U.S. prairies for waterfowl and other migratory birds. The Small Wetlands Program, created by a 1958 amendment to the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act of 1934 (commonly called the Duck Stamp Act) authorized the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to acquire wetlands and surrounding grasslands from willing buyers, to create a network of Waterfowl Production Areas. WPAs are part of the National Wildlife System, but -- with an average size of about 90 acres -- are relatively small compared to most refuges.
In the Prairie Pothole region of the Great Plains, where the Small Wetlands Program has had its greatest impact, WPAs protect habitat in one of the country's most important and threatened waterfowl nesting areas. Prairie Pothole wetlands have been dubbed "North America's Duck Factory."
WPAs protect migratory habitat as well, including Rainwater Basin wetlands in south-central Nebraska, where millions of migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, and other birds stop each spring to rest and feed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, through its Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District, manages 24,000 acres on 61 WPAs in the Rainwater Basin region. They are open to a variety of public uses, such as wildlife watching, hunting, photography, and nature education.
Ninety-eight percent of the proceeds from sales of Federal Duck Stamps -- which hunters of migratory birds must buy each year in addition to state permits and licenses -- are used to purchase or lease wetland habitat. Non-hunters can buy Duck Stamps, too, to support the Small Wetlands Program. According to USFWS director H. Dale Hall, "Buying a Duck Stamp is the easiest and most effective thing a person can do to help protect waterfowl and other migratory birds and their habitat." Duck Stamps can be purchased at post offices, and at most major locations that sell hunting licenses.