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Ding Darling


Earth Day is this Friday, and State Bird Day is next Tuesday. 2005 is also the 100th anniversary of the first wildlife refuge to be established in the state at Stump Lake. It’s a good time to tell the story of two men who had an enormous impact on wildlife conservation in ND. The first one’s namesake is Lake Darling northwest of Minot.

The “dirty thirties” conjure up images of bankruptcy, soup lines, drought and awe inspiring dust storms. On the Great Plains, conditions were disastrous for waterfowl, and conservationists became greatly alarmed when they realized ducks were quickly disappearing. The problem wasn’t limited to dried up wetlands; hunting practices were also out of control.

Jay Darling, of Iowa, was a renowned political cartoonist of that time – he used a shortened version of his last name, “Ding”, to sign his work. He was gutsy, energetic and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes. He was handsome, with a receding hairline. He ate pie for breakfast and counted among his friends people like Will Rogers, Edna Ferber, Henry Ford and Herbert Hoover.

Ding’s biographer, David Lendt, wrote, “Jay Darling’s first lesson in conservation came literally at the hand of his Uncle John. The youth...shot a wood duck in mid-nesting season, and John... blistered his nephew’s rear.”

After John died, Ding went back to his uncle’s Michigan farm. “It was the first time I had seen my youthful paradise since I was about fifteen years old,” he wrote, “and it seemed as if the farm had died with Uncle John.” The topsoil was gone, the woods cut down, and the river was now a muddy trickle devoid of fish. The pastures were scarred and useless, and the only remaining sign of wildlife was a solitary crow in the barnyard. “This,” he wrote, “was my first conscious realization of what could happen to land, what could happen to clear running streams, what could happen to bird life and human life when the common laws of Mother Nature were disregarded.”

Conservation soon became a recurrent theme in Darling’s cartoons. As a hunter, he resented bad hunting ethics and despised needless exploitation of natural resources. When FDR asked him to head up his new “duck committee” in 1934, Darling agreed to become chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey. Before taking the position, however, he insisted his group be spared political interference and demanded a million dollars to get the program properly up and running.

Darling’s team went out to gather input from sportsmen’s groups and game department officials in the 18 states hardest hit by the drought. When FDR’s administration reneged on the million dollars, Darling turned to Congress, to initiate a Federal Duck Stamp Program, the proceeds of which he would use to purchase wetlands and nesting habitats.

A fellow conservationist, Senator Peter Norbeck of South Dakota, introduced the resolution. As Ding later loved to tell it, the senator had a slight gum infection that day, so he left his upper plate in the washroom. In addition to his missing dentures, Norbeck also had a heavy Swedish accent, so when he got up to read the bill, nobody could understand a word he said. But, Norbeck was known for his integrity, so the Senate unanimously accepted his resolution.

FDR was about to head out on a fishing trip when the bill came in for his signature. Without fully reading it, he signed, and Ding immediately appropriated six million dollars for his “duck program.” Three weeks later, FDR conceded he’d been outsmarted by “this fellow Darling...the only man in history” to pull off a raid on the treasury without anybody noticing. Ding Darling later founded the National Wildlife Federation. Tune in tomorrow to learn about one of his most important partners, J. Clark Salyer II.

Source: Flyways: Pioneering Waterfowl Management in North America, U.S. Dept. of Interior - Fish and Wildlife Service

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm