When Minnesota wildlife artist Tom Moen won his first Minnesota duck stamp competition in 1998, he sold enough limited edition prints of his harlequins design to get by for two years without a job.
He made just a fraction of that money from his painting of a lesser scaup for the 2007 Minnesota stamp before barely breaking even in 2014 on his winning state duck stamp entry of two Canada geese standing in a picked cornfield.
“For years people were excited to see the new duck stamp,’’ said Moen, a self-proclaimed “stamp nerd” who entered his first federal duck stamp competition at age 15. “Now it’s down to where there’s no market left at all.”
The drastic downturn in enthusiasm for wildlife art has led to more than one conversation at the state Department of Natural Resources over whether the tradition of stamps and contests is worth keeping. Only 13% of state waterfowl hunters last year opted to pay an extra 75 cents to receive the actual duck stamp. Since 2007, waterfowlers have been able to simply check a box on their small game license to add the $7.50 “validation” required to harvest ducks and geese. The same is true about Minnesota pheasant hunters and pheasant stamps.
Meanwhile, contest entries have dried up from more than 200 a year per species in the 1980s to fewer than 15 per year nowadays. In the old days, the state contest would draw entries from prominent national artists such as Terry Redlin, David Maass, Les Kouba and the Hautman brothers — Robert, James and Joseph.
“We do ask ourselves from time to time ‘Do we continue?’ ’’ said Pat Rivers, deputy director of the DNR’s Fish & Wildlife Division. “Of course, we’re happy to continue the contest, but it isn’t as popular as it once was.”
The DNR’s stamp program is a funding mechanism for wildlife conservation, and stamp purchases for some species are voluntary. Proceeds are steered toward habitat projects. The five Minnesota stamps are for waterfowl, pheasant, turkey, salmon and walleye.
In 2018, pheasant stamps raised $540,000 for upland game bird habitat. State duck stamp proceeds in the same year were $622,500 — separate from any dollars that flow to Minnesota from mandatory purchases of the federal waterfowl stamp.
The latest winners in the state competition were Mark Kness of Albert Lea and Stephen Hamrick of Lakeville. In contests judged by the DNR on Sept. 19, Kness won the 2020 Pheasant Habitat Stamp from among 11 submissions. Hamrick took honors for the 2021 Turkey Habitat Stamp in a separate competition in which Kness finished third.
Starting next year, state wildlife stamp contests will be open for the first time to artists who craft images with digital tools such as Apple Pencil, iPad Pro and Procreate. Mark Pearce, a dentist from Blaine, said the change could revive participation. His hobby is digital creation of wildlife art, and he convinced the Legislature to open the contests to a new stable of artists.
“What’s the downside to having more people in the competition?” Pearce said. “Digital painting should be no less art than that created with oil or acrylic.”
Moen said he doesn’t approve of digitally produced entries in Minnesota’s wildlife stamp contests. The finished products are more like photographs than paintings, and they don’t belong in what has always been a “traditional art contest,’’ he said.
But like Pearce, Moen hasn’t lost hope in a revival of wildlife art that would make stamp contests in Minnesota and elsewhere more meaningful and prompt more hunters to buy pictorials instead of saving 75 cents to instead validate their license with a check mark.
Moen said the current era of disinterest in wildlife art was brought on by overproduction in the 1980s and 1990s.
“The market was flooded,” he said. “People just became numb to these images.”
If the tide turns and hunters return to the tradition of fixing stamps onto their licenses, those images could once again enliven hunter interest in art, Moen said.
“It starts with the dialogue in the duck blind,” he said. “You’re sitting there bored, waiting and then someone flips over license and says, ‘What do you think of this year’s stamp?’ ”