Every so often it's good to look into the past to revisit the people who got us where we are today. Looking Back is a series on the people who helped shape the National Wildlife Refuge System. The series is based on "A Look Back," a regular column written by Karen Leggett, from the Refuge System Branch of Communications, which appears in each issue of the Refuge Update newsletter.
Fred Staunton was raised on his family’s ranch in Roundup, MT, and he finished his 31-year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service career in Montana, as manager of Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. But he became passionate about waterfowl when he worked at Long Lake Refuge in North Dakota and then Waubay Refuge in South Dakota in the 1940s.
Fred Staunton in the mid-1940s, an era when he was a pioneer in recognizing the value of Prairie Pothole Region wetland habitat to waterfowl. (Photo: USFWS)
Staunton was concerned that federally funded programs to drain prairie potholes for farming were affecting the migratory waterfowl population. His annual counts showed fewer breeding pairs each year. He was convinced that ducks and geese needed small, isolated potholes of water for courtship and breeding—not just big lakes. But the U.S. Soil Conservation Service continued to help farmers drain the land.
In 1949, Staunton found the added ammunition he needed in an article by Clay Schoenfeld in Field & Stream: “That USFWS man deserves special mention because it was really he who blew the whistle on the ditchers and drainers … No small credit should be accorded refuge manager Fred Staunton in first identifying and documenting the wetland habitat base so essential to United States waterfowl production in the Prairie Pothole Region.”
Not long after, the Soil Conservation Service stopped subsidizing wetland drainage. In 1958, Congress created the Small Wetlands Program by amending the 1934 Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act to allow proceeds from the sale of Duck Stamps to be used to protect waterfowl habitat. Through acquisition or easements, the program protects small wetlands called Waterfowl Production Areas, primarily in the Prairie Pothole Region. The first WPA was purchased in 1959 in Day County, SD—the same county where Staunton began his surveys about 15 years earlier.
Staunton died in 1986 at age 79 on a ranch he operated near Big Timber, MT. The Prairie Pothole Region he worked so hard to protect now produces 50 percent of all breeding ducks in the United States.