The government is us; we are the government, you and I. -Theodore Roosevelt

B&C Member Spotlight - Jay N. "Ding" Darling

A Voice and an Artist for Conservation

By Leonard Wurman, originally published in the Winter 2001 edition of Fair Chase
Ding was a man of contrasts, and his simple cartoons belied a complex make-up. The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge was dedicated on Florida’s Sanibel Island three years after his death.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service had an unusual beginning. Congress in the 1870s established the Division of Entomology to learn the effects of insects on agriculture. Soon this division was studying birds. By 1888, its realm extended to mammals, and it was renamed the Division of Biological Survey. 

In 1900, when the Lacey Act prohibited the interstate shipment of illegally taken game, enforcement became the division’s responsibility. Five years later, the division was promoted to become the Bureau of Biological Survey. In 1940, it joined the Bureau of Fisheries to become the Fish and Wildlife Service. 

However, in the early 1930s, the Bureau of Biological Survey was so poorly reputed that there were calls for its dissolution. One man saved it, a man who was a most unlikely candidate. He had no prior administrative experience, had never worked in a bureaucracy, had never run for public office, and was not even a biologist. He was, amazingly, a political cartoonist. 


Jay Norwood Darling was born in Michigan on October 21, 1876. His father, an educator turned minister, acquired the nickname “Ding,” which Jay inherited, by shortening his surname. 

After several short moves, the family settled in the wild, river town of Sioux City, Iowa. Jay roamed extensively into the barely civilized, adjacent areas of South Dakota and Nebraska. Some summers he herded cattle further west. One summer he worked on an uncle’s farm in Michigan. When he returned to the farm a few years later, he was astonished by the results of overuse and poor care. The timber had been removed, the soil eroded, the river muddy and barren, and the topsoil gone—all lessons in what happens when the laws of nature are disregarded. 

Darling in a 1904 file photo from the Sioux City Journal.

Darling’s college career was anything but exemplary. He entered Yankton College, “borrowed” the president’s horse and buggy one night, and was promptly expelled. The next year he enrolled in Wisconsin’s Beloit College and nearly flunked out. In his junior year, he drew caricatures of the faculty for the yearbook, and was awarded with another expulsion. After sitting out a year, he returned and graduated in 1900. 

Returning home, Ding became a cub reporter for the Sioux City Journal, and occupied much of his free time hunting and fishing. When an irascible attorney refused to be photographed, Ding sketched and published his image, and soon was sketching many leading citizens for the paper. Before long, he became the cartoonist for the Des Moines Register and Leader. His popularity soared, and by 1908, a Darling cartoon graced the front page of every issue. This was the era of Theodore Roosevelt and Ding became an enthusiastic recruit to the conservation cause. 

In 1911, he joined the New York Globe, which, being syndicated, gave him national exposure. But he did not like the Big Apple and had little contact with ordinary people and newsmen. Management tried to influence his cartoons. He found the city’s tinsel and glitter unappealing. After 16 months, he was back at the Des Moines Register

Ding had become a national institution, and his popularity allowed his cartoons the luxury to disagree with the paper’s editorial positions. When, prior to World War I, the Register condemned the arms race, Ding campaigned for military preparedness. The paper could not object when he contracted with the New York Tribune to syndicate his cartoons to 130 newspapers nationwide. He even moved back to New York for a year, mailing the cartoons to Des Moines, but again became disenchanted and returned to Iowa. 

When Theodore Roosevelt died in 1919, Ding quickly sketched a cartoon that he planned to refine later, but “the long, long trail” was such a great success that a second version was never attempted.

A driven perfectionist, Ding read six newspapers a day, was knowledgeable in many diverse areas, and used his sense of observation to create metaphors in cartoon context. When Theodore Roosevelt died in 1919, Ding quickly sketched a cartoon that he planned to refine later, but “The Long, Long Trail” was such a great success that a second version was never attempted. 

Despite the onset of heart disease and asthma, he sought and loved adventure. He was one of the first in Iowa to obtain a pilot license. In 1925, he nearly died from peritonitis. So close was death that the wire services mistakenly reported his demise, and Ding was subsequently able to enjoy the many laudatory obituaries from his hospital bed. It was a year before he was again actively cartooning. 


In 1931, Ding helped create the Iowa Fish and Game Commission and he became one of its original five members. Yet his efforts to keep the body non-political were disappointing. He recognized that Iowa did not have enough technically trained personnel to adequately perform needed wildlife research, so he started a training program at Iowa State University. With his friend and fellow Boone and Crockett Club member Aldo Leopold as consultant, the two initiated a biological survey of Iowa’s resources and developed a 25-year conservation plan. 

A movement was started to elect Ding to the United States Senate, but he felt he had more influence as a cartoonist. He had become a national voice for conservation. Ding, a Republican and a conservative, distrusted President Franklin Roosevelt, and his cartoons poked fun at the Democrat’s liberal agenda. 

In the early 1930s, the large game animals were still recovering from the near-annihilation of the prior century, and waterfowl were the most popularly hunted game. FDR, an avowed but politically realistic conservationist, appointed a three-member committee to study how to conserve and restore waterfowl populations devastated by the Midwestern drought. Tom Beck, president of “More Game Birds in America,” (later incorporated as Ducks Unlimited) was chairman. The often acrimonious and public debates of the “Beck Committee” were a turning point in the American conservation efforts. Beck, with many followers, favored hatching ducks in incubators and releasing them into the flyways, the money to come from a tax on firearms and ammunition. 

The other two committee members were Ding Darling and Aldo Leopold, with Ding the buffer between Leopold and Beck. Both Darling and Leopold argued for the restoration of the nesting, winter, and flyway habitats, and urged that the necessary funds should come from state hunting licenses, money that was then being used for many purposes other than wildlife. Connecticut Senator Frederick C. Walcott, the founder of the American Game Protective Association and a member of the Boone and Crockett Club’s executive committee, wanted a federal hunting stamp. The “Beck Committee” recommended, and FDR approved, that: 1) 50 million acres of marginal farmland be purchased, 2) 25 million dollars be allocated to wildlife restoration, 3) 25 million dollars be used to pay relief workers on these projects, and 4) there be a federal duck stamp. 

Ding buying the first duck stamp in 1934.

The Bureau of Biological Survey also prepared a report, but it exhibited such an ignorance of migratory waterfowl management that there were calls to abolish the Bureau. Roosevelt solved this problem in 1934 by appointing Darling to head and reorganize the Bureau. Darling gave up his $100,000 yearly salary to join the New Deal team at $8,000/year. But this was his calling, and he had the political and financial freedom to act independently. 


Ding immediately shook up the Bureau, firing some personnel while promoting others. There were only 29 federal game wardens, but Ding organized a strike force to concentrate their effectiveness, breaking up Maryland and California market hunting rings and enforcing no-spring-hunting laws in the Midwest. 

His biggest difficulty, because of the Great Depression, was getting the promised one million dollars from FDR. Ding received some humorous assistance when the Duck Stamp Act was in its final passage. South Dakota Senator Peter Norbeck, with a strong Scandinavian accent, took out his false teeth, stood up, and added an amendment that no one understood. It passed on a voice vote. Roosevelt signed it thinking the Bureau would receive the one million. It didn’t; it received six million, and the Bureau’s funding logjam was broken. In celebration, Darling sketched the first duck stamp. 

Ding outlawed baiting and the use of live decoys, imposed a three-shell limit and a 30-day season, and reduced bag limits. The National Wildlife Refuge system was initiated. He received commitments from the firearms and ammunition manufacturers to support federal wildlife research, and influenced them to maintain a 10% tax on firearms and ammunition, known now as the Pittman-Robertson Bill, with the monies dedicated to conservation. 

Ding was a man of contrasts, and his simple cartoons belied a complex make-up.  

After 20 months in Washington, having restored the Bureau to firm footing, Ding resigned. His hand-picked successor was Ira Gabrielson, also a member of the Boone and Crockett Club, who would become the first head of the Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Darling attributed his success at the Bureau to simply allowing good men to do their jobs. He also realized that, in general, exploiters of natural resources were well organized, and that defenders were not. He lauded Roosevelt as an organized conservationist. 

Ding continued his conservation activities. The American Game Association had become inactive, and in its place arose the American Wildlife Institute, known today as the Wildlife Management Institute. Ding urged Roosevelt to call for a national meeting of wildlife conservationists. This North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference, meeting for the first time in 1936, still meets annually. 

The Iowa Digital Library has over 11,000 cartoons by Ding Darling in their online collection.

Ding helped in the creation of a separate General Wildlife Federation to coordinate the 6,000 local, county, and state conservation groups. Within five months, groups from 44 states were mobilized, with Darling serving as President for the first three years. The name was soon changed to the National Wildlife Federation. Ding later became critical of the Federation for becoming a pressure group for the Fish and Wildlife Service and abandoning its original purpose of advocating and coordinating wildlife programs. Years later, in 1955, he formally broke with the National Wildlife Federation, calling it his greatest conservation humiliation, instead of his hoped-for crowning achievement. 

During the early days of World War II, Darling bucked the American isolationist posture and urged FDR to come to the aid of Britain and her allies. In 1942, one of his cartoons won his second Pulitzer Prize. The war brought the need of conservation into sharp focus for Ding, who believed that all wars, among all species, occur because populations grow in the face of diminishing resources. 

Back in Iowa, he continued the fight to keep governors from meddling in conservation affairs, and helped establish a conservation camp for teachers. He criticized the Army Corps of Engineers’ desire to alter significant streams and rivers. In 1949, at the age of 66, he retired as a cartoonist. 

Believing that an informed populace would be active in conservation issues, Ding thought that all schools should teach about land, water, and vegetation, and that higher education should emphasize research and the scientific method. Ding, who for years had been spending winters on Captiva Island, Florida, became active preventing the extinction of the diminutive Florida Key Deer. He was eventually successful with the establishment of the Key Deer Refuge in 1957. 

In midwinter of 1934, the above cartoon was hastily drawn by Ding to call attention to the unsportsmanlike hunting methods that were decimating the remaining Florida Key deer. After World War II the regional office of the USFWS in Atlanta reported that an estimated 26 deer remained. In June 1952, the Boone and Crockett Club hired a full-time warden to protect the remaining Key deer. The National Wildlife Federation contributed towards continued warden service and in 1957 Congress authorized the establishment of the National Key Deer Refuge.

Ironically, Ding in the ‘50s was very critical of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower’s ignorance of conservation’s efforts and successes. He was outraged that Duck Stamp proceeds were being used for other than migratory waterfowl projects, and even more so when Congress considered repealing the Duck Stamp law. When the Army wanted to grab part of the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge as an artillery range, an area Ding had established as head of the Bureau of Biological Survey, he concluded that Ike trusted the Army (Corp of Engineers) more that the scientists. 

Into his eighties, Ding remained aggressive on conservation issues. He fought a continuing battle against Iowa governors constantly interfering with the conservation commission, and carried on a brisk correspondence with national politicians over conservation issues. He was distressed over the Corp of Engineers obsession to build more dams, believing that dams flood tillable land and within 20 years fill with enough silt that they can no longer function as flood controls nor produce hydroelectric power. He believed the popular press lacked an interest in conservation, and that the conservationists themselves sorely lacked the ability to develop a national clearinghouse for information. 

When at 83 he became ill, he drew a final cartoon and gave it to a friend to distribute at his death. He recovered, but suffered a stroke the following year. The adventurous, self-reliant, independent, feisty champion of conservation spent his last year despondent about his condition. He died February 12, 1962. His farewell cartoon, “ ‘Bye Now – It’s Been Wonderful Knowing You,” was published the next day. 

Published in the Des Moines Regisgter on Tuesday, February 13, 1962.

Three years later, the 4,306-acre J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge was dedicated on Florida’s Sanibel Island. A decade later, the Iowa Conservation Commission confirmed, as Ding predicted, that straightening the Missouri River by the Corp of Engineers had cost Iowa nearly 32,000 acres of its best wildlife and fish habitat. The river now flowed with such force that nearly all life in the channel had been destroyed. Ding’s baby, the Duck Stamp, had raised $160 million through 1970, with the proceeds used to purchase two million acres of prime waterfowl habitat. 

Ding was a man of contrasts, and his simple cartoons belied a complex make-up. He was a perfectionist who, perhaps expecting too much of others as he did of himself, struggled with disappointment when events turned out not to his liking. Ironically, although a major opponent of a strong, centralized, federal government, he didn’t hesitate to make use of that power to protect and restore wildlife when other methods were failing. 

Just over 50 Boone and Crockett members have ever been awarded an Honorary Life Membership by the Club. Appropriately so, Ding Darling is on that short list.  

Member Spotlights

Boone and Crockett Club members have come from a cross-section of famous accomplished people whose lives and careers have written and recorded the history of this country since the late 19th Century. They have been naturalists, scientists, explorers and sportsmen, writers and academicians, artists, statesmen and politicians, generals, bankers, financiers, philanthropists, and industrialists. Their diversity of ideas and activities during their careers have made the Boone and Crockett Club rich in its fellowship and achievements. To read more member spotlights, just click here

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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt