So you were in Brandon to visit family and decided to do some promotion at the same time?
Pretty much. My wife, Liz, and I were back to visit my mom and my sisters. My mom and my one sister are in Brandon; the others are in Souris and Winnipeg. We’re here usually two or three times a year. We live in Memphis from November to May and then at Lake of the Woods in the summer.
That sounds great! Now you’ve really had quite a remarkable career.
I was doing what I loved with Ducks Unlimited. And I worked in both head offices — Canada and the United States. And while I was in the U.S., I was responsible for the Ducks Unlimited Mexico program. So I’m really, in my mind, a North American — I’m still a Canadian citizen but I’ve lived and worked and gone to school about equally in both Canada and the U.S.
So what was the genesis of the organization?
Ducks Unlimited was established in the States in 1937 and in Canada in 1938. The purpose of Ducks Unlimited Inc. in the U.S. originally was to raise funds to be spent on waterfowl habitat conservation in Canada. That was the whole objective. They had to get ahead, of course, by raising money and setting the first policies before DU Canada, or DUC, could get going. DU Canada met the first time on April 1 in 1938 at The Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg. And the headquarters has always been in or near Winnipeg. Now it’s at Oak Hammock Marsh.
Why was it Winnipeg to start with? Because it was a central prairie major wetlands region?
Back in 1937-’38, I think that connections were just easier into Winnipeg, because there were trains from Chicago and trains from the east and west. I think most roads crossed the path there, and that’s why. One of the initial promoters was a guy by the name of Ed Pitblado, and he was with a law firm in Winnipeg, and since he was in Winnipeg, and the initial board of directors was from that region, that’s why it ended up being in Winnipeg. There was talk about changing it many times, to Edmonton or Regina, but that never happened.
The last move was out of Winnipeg to the Oak Hammock Marsh Conservation Centre, which is a highly awarded enterprise. It’s a partnership with the Province of Manitoba, and they do it together — the communications/education side. And Ducks Unlimited Canada’s national headquarters is also in the same building.
But although there are partnerships with governments, DU is a non-profit that’s still dependent on fundraising, right?
That’s right — fundraising and the membership, which is about 800,000 in the U.S. and 180,000 in Canada. DU Canada’s budget is about $80-million a year, and it all goes into wetlands conservation — waterfowl habitat, really, is what it is, because waterfowl habitat is more than wetlands — it’s wetlands where the ducks nest and associated uplands.
Without DU’s intervention or interest, would waterfowl have become almost extinct, or would their habitat have fallen by the wayside? I mean, was there a possibility of their habitat disappearing because we were focused on agriculture and tried to convert most of the land to that purpose?
No — ’37-38 was the end of the Dirty Thirties and the drought, and Canadians were really concerned about the terrible dry conditions across prairie Canada. And the American volunteers figured out that this was also the same area that most of the ducks that flew south came from. So the U.S. sort of created the initiative to get into saving waterfowl habitat — mostly wetlands, originally — in Canada, because that was seen to be the limiting factor, because the duck numbers were way down — the lowest populations ever. So there was a ready market in Canada because Canadians were very concerned about how dry it was on the prairies. It was kind of a natural melding of the two initiatives, really.
There was no money in Canada to do it, or course, because any extra government funding in Canada was used for drought relief. And of course the market crashed in ’29 — I mean, everything was going wrong. So there wasn’t any extra money in Canada from government sources, and there weren’t very many wealthy Canadians to do it either. So that’s kind of how it all came together. It was a great juxtaposition, really, of the interests and needs of two different countries, two different parts of our culture, and there were a lot of very passionate duck hunters around.
That leads right to my next question, which is that the notion of conservationists and hunters working hand-in-hand seems almost contradictory. I suspect most people who are non-hunters don’t understand how you can spend 50 weeks of the year conserving habitat for a particular creature, and then take some pleasure in ending its life. Is there any light you can shine on that for me? Because I really think it confuses a lot of people.
Waterfowl, or any wildlife, only exists in abundance because its habitat is available to it, and the founders of Ducks Unlimited were mostly driven by an interest in hunting. They knew there wouldn’t be any waterfowl to hunt if the habitats weren’t protected and preserved. So it’s not a passion for the duck and the duckling, really — it’s a passion for the hunting. And it’s a fact, I think, across the U.S. and Canada, and maybe the world, that the best conservationists are actually hunters. And it’s an incorrect idea to think of being either a hunter OR a conservationist. It’s wrong to think about it as being one or the other. They’re connected.
Are waterfowl, or more particularly their habitat, an integral part of the life cycle that keeps the world turning, at least this part of the world?
Absolutely! Wetlands are at the core of the life cycle of most animals. Almost all the wildlife that lives on the prairies depends on wetlands in one way or another. As a matter of fact, in spite of the billion-and-a-half dollars of work that Ducks Unlimited has done out there, it’s probably done more good for the environment, in the big sense of the word, than it has for the ducks! I mean, the ducks have benefited, but so has everything else that lives in the wetlands — the beavers and the muskrats and all the songbirds and all the other prairie wildlife — the frogs and the salamanders — that use wetlands at various stages of their cycles. They’re all part of the ecosystem that depends on wetlands.
The coincidence beyond that is that wetlands are also incredibly important for things like flood control. The big flood of Brandon in 2011 was aggravated by a tremendous amount of drainage of prairie wetlands across western Manitoba and Saskatchewan that ended up in the Assiniboine Basin.
In Winnipeg, there are all kinds of storm retention ponds inside the city, the purpose of which, when heavy rain falls, is to slow down the release of water into the rivers. Which is exactly what prairie potholes — prairie wetlands — do.
What excites you about waterfowl? Where did your passion come from?
That’s a tough thing to answer. I grew up in Brandon and always loved the outdoors. We’re on the edge of the pothole country, which is the best waterfowl production habitat in the world. So I grew up in the middle of all that. I guess that helped!
I’ve been interested in waterfowl ever since I was a young man. It’s just a funny passion that guys get about waterfowl — some people get it for deer, some people get it for other big game, and so on. Well, I’ve always been a nut about waterfowl.
For me, it’s sort of the mystery about them, coming from the south. I mean, they leave, they’re not here in the winter, and then they come back in the spring, and you’ve got the Canada geese going by in the spring going to the Arctic. It’s sort of this mystique about this resource that we have.
Hunting typically takes place first thing in the morning, at sunrise, and there’s sort of a mystique about that part of the day, too. And there’s a great camaraderie amongst duck hunters that hunt together. It’s kind of hard to explain, but it gets into your gut, and you embrace it completely — there’s nothing else you want to do. Before the hunting season comes on, as a young man, you can’t sleep. So it becomes a bit of a passion, which seems like an overstatement, but that’s what it is.
How did the creation of the book come about?
Ducks Unlimited decided they were going to have a 75th anniversary book. And I write — I’ve been writing for the magazines and that sort of thing. I was retired, and I needed more to do in the winter. So I let it be known, ‘Hey — I wouldn’t mind taking a crack at that.’ I’ve written one other book, and I’ve edited a few books. So they asked me to do it. And I had an unusually rich background to do this — I’ve been connected to the organization right from 1964 or ’65.
I set out to write a true history — not just the highlights, not just the great things. There were some side trips that didn’t work out the way they were planned. And we wrote about them.
Ducks Unlimited was the leader in habitat conservation. The government has never done very much with that. They set hunting regulations and bag limits and enforce that sort of thing. And they have some waterfowl areas, but not very many compared to what Ducks Unlimited has done. Ducks Unlimited has been the leader all the way through. I’ve got a little bit in the book about what the Canadian Wildlife Service did at different stages. The provincial governments and federal government were always important partners, but the initiative came from Ducks Unlimited.
Anyone wishing to purchase a copy of Batt’s book, "The Marsh Keepers Journey: The Story of Ducks Unlimited Canada," can do so online at www.ducks.ca/store or by calling 1-877-274-6962.