Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929

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Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929

Marc A. Le Forestier

Excerpt from the Migratory Bird Conservation Act

For the acquisition, including the location, examination, and survey, of suitable areas of land, water, or land and water, for use as migratory bird reservations, and necessary expenses incident thereto, and for the administration, maintenance, and development of such areas and other preserves, reservations, or breeding grounds frequented by migratory birds and under the administration of the Secretary of the Interior, including the construction of dams, dikes, ditches, flumes, spillways, buildings, and other necessary improvements, and for the elimination of the loss of migratory birds from alkali poisoning, oil pollution of waters, or other causes, for cooperation with local authorities in wildlife conservation, for investigations and publications relating to North American birds, for personal services, printing, engraving, and issuance of circulars, posters, and other necessary matter and for the enforcement of the provisions of this subchapter, there are hereby authorized to be appropriated, in addition to all other amounts authorized by law to be appropriated, $200,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1940, and for each fiscal year thereafter.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the wildlife conservation movement was beginning to develop support within American government. In 1900 Congress passed the first federal wildlife protection law, the Lacey Act, which made it a federal crime to transport wildlife across a state border if it had been taken in violation of state law. During the next thirty years such organizations as the National Audubon Society and the Wildlife Management Institute were formed to advance the objectives of the conservation movement. It is no coincidence that as the last of the passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius ) died in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens in 1914, migratory birds became an early focus of the federal government's special attention. The extinction of game bird species also mobilized hunters and the sporting arms and ammunition industries, who convinced Congress to pass conservation laws that would assist states in protecting wildlife populations for sport.

The Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929 (45 Stat. 1222) exemplifies this cooperative federal-state approach. Migratory birds had already been placed under federal protection in 1913, and in 1916 they were the subject of a treaty between the United States and Great Britain (for Canada). This treaty, together with state and federal laws directed at the practice of plume hunting, would help reverse the decline in migratory bird populations. The Migratory Bird Conservation Act was designed to provide sanctuaries in which these birds could live.

The principal sponsor of the Migratory Bird Conservation Act was Senator Peter Norbeck, Republican from South Dakota. The act first emerged, in concept, in Senator Norbeck's 1923 proposal known as the "game refuge bill," which would have established a joint federal-state system of shorebird sanctuaries financed by federal hunting license fees. Conservationists, however, were alarmed that the bill would establish these game refuges as "public shooting grounds." Norbeck rewrote the proposal, eliminating the hunting provisions and providing that refuge funds would be appropriated directly from the federal treasury.

The act also established the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission to approve the purchase or rental of areas of land or water as sanctuaries for migratory birds and water fowl, upon the recommendation of the secretary of the Department of the Interior. Such acquisitions may be completed only after consultation with affected local and state governments, and are financed by the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, also established by the act. The fund also provides resources for maintenance of the acquired lands, the preservation of habitat, and for any other related expenses.

When it became clear that the $7.8 million dollars originally appropriated under the Migratory Bird Conservation Act would be insufficient to accomplish its purposes, Congress enacted the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act of 1934, which required all hunters to attach stamps to their state hunting licenses, providing additional funds for the creation of sanctuaries. In 1937 the Pittman-Robertson Bill imposed an excise tax on guns and shells to extract more funds from hunters for the benefit of wildlife. Together, these acts have constituted the most effective wildlife conservation scheme on record.


Gibbons, Felton. Neighbors to the Birds: A History of Birdwatching in America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988.

Lund, Thomas A. American Wildlife Law. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

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