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Jay Darling


Tomorrow is Earth Day, so we take this opportunity to tell the story of a man who had an enormous impact on wildlife conservation in North Dakota. Jay Darling, of Iowa, was a renowned political cartoonist during the “dirty thirties,” a time of bankruptcy, soup lines, drought and awe-inspiring dust storms. On the Great Plains, conditions were disastrous for waterfowl, and the problem wasn’t limited to dried up wetlands; hunting practices were also out of control.

Jay Darling’s first lesson in conservation came at the hand of his Uncle John, who blistered his nephew’s rear when he shot a wood duck in mid-nesting season.

After John died, Ding went back to his uncle’s Michigan farm. He wrote, “It was the first time I had seen my youthful paradise since I was about fifteen years old, and it seemed as if the farm had died with Uncle John.”

The topsoil was gone, the woods cut down, and the river was a muddy trickle devoid of fish. The pastures were scarred and useless. “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 became a recurring theme in Darling’s cartoons. 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 running.

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. Norbeck also had a heavy Swedish accent, so when he 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 raid the treasury without anybody noticing. Ding Darling later founded the National Wildlife Federation, and Lake Darling, northwest of Minot, is named for him.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

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