The 1930s were a difficult time for Americans. The Great Depression left many families destitute, and farmers attempted to make up for their losses and low crop values by cultivating more land. To make matter worse, the Great Plains and Midwest experienced severe drought throughout the 1930s, and this lack of water coupled with increased agricultural pressure damaged fragile prairie grasses from the Llano Estacado of Texas to the boreal forests in Canada. Topsoil on the Plains that had accumulated over millennia dried and was blown as far away as New York City, where ships in Long Island Sound lay cloaked by the dust of the dying prairie thousands of miles away.
Things were no better in Canada. Vast wetlands in Alberta, Manitoba, and other provinces were drained so that the land could be cultivated. However, the soil beneath these marshes, which contained high levels of peat, proved poor for farming. Worse yet, the peat dried and easily caught fire. Draining marshes also damaged the water table on the Canadian prairie. Families who were already contending with the greatest drought in living memory suddenly found their wells dry.
At a fishing lodge on the banks of the Beaverkill River in New York, publisher Joseph Palmer Knapp discussed the decline in duck numbers with Ray E. Benson, publicity director for the More Game Birds in America Foundation. Joining Knapp and Benson were John Huntington, who had opened the Game Conservation Institute in New Jersey, and Arthur Bartley, vice president of More Game Birds in America and the foundation’s field director. More Game Birds had helped improve upland bird numbers by incentivizing farmers to raise and release game birds like quail and pheasants and to provide suitable habitat for these birds. However, because wild ducks migrated and could not be domesticated, the model which More Game Birds used would not work to improve duck populations. Instead, these men decided that conserving habitat would be the key to saving ducks.
The challenge, of course, was that unlike domesticated game birds which remained in one small geographic area throughout their lives, waterfowl relied on healthy habitat along migration routes that stretched from Canada to Mexico. The Bureau of Biological Survey’s funds could not be used in Canada, which wasDucks Unlimited Nebraska home to millions of acres of critical nesting habitat. Any conservation program aimed at increasing waterfowl populations would require multinational efforts.