OWATONNA, MINN. -- Arkansas waterfowlers have flooded timber, Louisianans their coastal marshes.

But Minnesota remains, in many respects, the nation's hotbed for all things ducks and duck hunting -- even in these times of dwindling bird numbers in the state.

Evidence of this was showcased Saturday in Owatonna, which arguably has been ground zero over generations for wildlife art, not only in Minnesota but the nation.

It was here beginning at 1 p.m. Saturday that a trifecta of waterfowling accomplishments were joined:

• Joe Hautman of Plymouth was feted as winner of the 2008-09 federal duck stamp contest -- the third time he has topped that competition.

• The 75th anniversary of the first issuing of the federal duck stamp was celebrated.

• Most living Minnesota artists who, like Hautman, have won the federal duck stamp contest were on hand -- including Hautman's two brothers, Bob and Jim. Each hopes to help lay the foundation for what someday might be a wildlife art museum at the Daniel C. Gainey Conference Center in Owatonna, part of the University of St. Thomas.

• • •

Saturday's gathering traced its roots to the vocational meanderings of Jay (Ding) Darling, an Iowa newspaper cartoonist, Pulitzer Prize winner and painter of the first federal duck stamp.

Darling was appointed chief of the federal Bureau of Biological Survey by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934, and it was his idea to require waterfowl hunters age 16 and older to buy a stamp to raise funds for duck habitat.

In Darling's life were similarities to those of the Hautman brothers -- indeed, similarities to the lives of the 15 Minnesota artists who have won the federal duck stamp competition a record 23 times.

Darling was a fire-breathing conservationist whose cartoons lampooned people who drained and plowed Iowa's wetlands.

The Hautmans also are conservationists, and their love of waterfowl and the lands and waters that support them forms the backbone of their work.

"My dad, Tom, was a duck hunter, and my brothers and I learned from him," said Joe, 52. "He also was a duck stamp collector."

Joe paints for a living, but he has other employment options. He holds a doctorate in theoretical physics. "I was painting on the side when my brothers kept telling me I should enter the federal duck stamp contest," he said. "They had seen my work and thought I had a chance to do well, and that I would have fun doing it."

Joe won his first federal duck stamp contest in 1992, with only the fifth duck painting he had composed -- a remarkable achievement by a member of a remarkable family.

An older brother, Pete, a novelist, won the National Book Award for young people's literature in 2004.

Other Hautman siblings also are artistic, painting and carving, following in the footsteps of their mother, Elaine, a lifelong painter.

Overarching these achievements and those of other Minnesota federal duck stamp winners has been an ever-changing wildlife art market, about which no one knows more than Bill Webster of Frontenac, Minn.

Webster is the founder and former owner of art distributor Wild Wings.

He believes the presence of Josten's (which sells yearbooks, rings, clothing and other products requiring design and artwork) in Owatonna and the advocacy of wildlife art in the Owatonna schools were serendipitous to the broad-scale market expansion of wildlife art from the 1950s to the late 1980s.

Two-time federal duck stamp winner David Maass and wildlife and sporting dog artist Jim Killen, for example, were art directors at Josten's before leaving to paint wildlife full-time.

"The selling of signed, limited-edition wildlife art prints was what really got it going," Webster said. "Prints brought the price point to what most everyone could afford. Print selling began in the 1950s and even before that. But it really took off in the late 1960s and early 1970s."

Artists capitalized, often joining forces with Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups to sell prints. Edition sizes ballooned into the tens of thousands, dwarfing the mere 200 lithographs Jaques sold (for $7.50 apiece) in 1940.

Abetting the burgeoning wildlife art market were state stamp contests nationwide for species as varied as trout and wild turkeys.

It was inevitable, perhaps, that relative saturation would someday be reached, and the market for wildlife art would shrink.

Example: In the mid-1980s, winning the federal duck stamp contest often meant $1 million or more to the artist in print sales. Today, the figure is perhaps a quarter of that.

• • •

Owatonna was a natural choice, Webster believes, for Joe Hautman's "home state" ceremony Saturday, which each year is organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to honor the winner of the federal duck stamp contest.

Highlighting the day was an exhibition of original artwork by nearly all of Minnesota's federal duck stamp winners. Also, signed prints of the 23 artists' winning designs, framed with their federal duck stamps, were displayed. And the Post Office offered home-state cancellations of the 2008 stamp and cachet.

Jim, Bob and Joe Hautman relaxed only briefly Saturday here, before returning to their studios.

Each brother paints a number of commissioned originals each year. Each enters stamp contests and distributes limited print editions of his work. And together, through licensing agreements, the brothers broker designs that appear on wallpaper, thermometers, rugs, lawn chairs and other art-bearing products.

Said Joe, telling of his Minnesota roots:

"As long as I'm painting, I'm happy. But I particularly love painting wildlife, ducks especially."

Dennis Anderson •  danderson@startribune.com