By Tyler Allen

Joseph Hautman was bow hunting for elk in Montana’s rugged Gravelly Range with his brothers Robert and James on September 19, when the winners of the 2015 Federal Duck Stamp Contest were announced in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

The Hautman brothers, considered Duck Stamp legends from Minnesota, were out of cell phone range when U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Assistant Director for Migratory Birds Jerome Ford declared the winners. But the Hautmans drove back into service when they arrived in Alder, Montana, to resupply fuel, ice and other provisions for elk camp.

“[It] took us a while to figure out who won,” Joseph said in October 2015 from his home in Plymouth, Minnesota. “We got emails saying, ‘Congratulations! … ‘Hautmans win all three!’”

They soon discovered Joseph had won his fifth Federal Duck Stamp Contest with his rendering of trumpeter swans, and Robert and James’s mallard duck paintings had placed second and third, respectively. The Hautmans made history in this illustrious art contest by sweeping the top three spots as a family. The brothers have now won the contest 11 times between them.

Every waterfowl hunter in the country who’s 16 or older is required each season to purchase the $25 duck stamp, which raises nearly $25 million annually for habitat conservation. Since its inception in 1934, the Federal Duck Stamp program has generated over $800 million to acquire and lease more than 6.5 million acres of migratory bird habitat.

James, Joseph and Robert Hautman with their paintings that swept the top three spots in the 2015 Federal Duck Stamp Contest. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOSEPH HAUTMAN

James, Joseph and Robert Hautman with their paintings that swept the top three spots in the 2015 Federal Duck Stamp Contest. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOSEPH HAUTMAN

Jay Norwood Darling created the program as head of the U.S. Biological Survey, a forerunner to the USFWS. A two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and noted conservationist, Norwood drew the first duck stamp depicting a pair of mallards landing on a marsh. In subsequent years, noted wildlife artists were invited to submit designs until the first art contest was held in 1949 – won by Walt Weber with his painting of trumpeter swans.

The trumpeter was one of five species – along with the blue-winged teal, cinnamon teal, gadwall, and mallard – available to artists in this year’s contest, and the bird has special significance in Montana. The state hosts one of three resident trumpeter swan populations, and was among the birds’ last North American homes in the early 1930s when they were on the brink of extinction.

Fewer than 70 trumpeter swans were known to exist in North America at that time, and nearly half were found in southwest Montana’s Centennial Valley. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the valley’s Red Rocks Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in 1935 as a sanctuary and breeding ground for wildlife.

The largest North American bird, with a wingspan up to eight feet, the trumpeter swan is a conservation success story. Today, more than 500 live year-round on the Red Rock’s refuge and are joined each winter by more than 4,000 trumpeters that migrate from Canada.

USFWS now owns more than 50,000 acres of habitat – and manages nearly 25,000 acres more through conservation easements – in the Centennial Valley.

“[The] migratory bird stamp is one of these efficient ways to conserve wetland and grassland habitat,” said Bob Sanders, manager of conservation programs for Montana Ducks Unlimited. “It’s very rancher friendly, which is the key if you want to make it work for [both] people and wildlife. It doesn’t restrict grazing [so] it’s a perfect partnership.”

In Montana, USFWS has spent nearly $9 million in federal duck stamp funds over the life of the program to acquire refuge land and purchase conservation easements, which prevent habitat from ever being developed but allow ranchers and other landowners to keep their land in production. Cattle-grazed grassland provides ideal nesting ground for waterfowl, Sanders said, because these birds evolved with grazing mammals.

Joseph Hautman’s acrylic painting of trumpeters will raise millions to conserve wild places like the Red Rock refuge, will be carried by every adult waterfowl hunter during 2016-2017 season, and will be sought after by stamp collectors around the world. But the professional wildlife artist with a doctorate in physics is conspicuously understated when asked about the significance of winning a fifth contest.

“It’s cool … to have your name on that stamp,” Joseph said, noting it wasn’t easy to get his name on this one since more than 160 other artists were vying for the prize. “People came out of the woodwork to paint swans.”

The contest has exacting standards also: Submissions must be 7 inches by 10 inches with a 1-inch mat, and a panel of five anonymous judges vote on each entry. Artwork is critiqued on everything from the habitat depicted to the correct number of primary feathers on the wings if a bird’s in flight.

The Hautman brothers’ exacting reproductions have gained them notoriety beyond the art, conservation and stamp collecting worlds. They garnered mention in the 1996 cult-classic film Fargo when the character Norm Gunderson entered the contest with a painting of a mallard. He was beat out by “Hautman’s blue-winged teal,” Norm laments in the film.

“It’s pretty funny, we get a lot of people mentioning [Fargo],” Joseph said. “It’s kind of fortunate that it really is a good movie.”

The Hautman brothers don’t seem preoccupied with the fame they’ve experienced from their duck-stamp prowess. They didn’t even stick around in civilization to celebrate their historic trifecta in this year’s contest. They had elk to chase in Montana.

“We got the news and went back out into the mountains for another week or so,” Joseph said. “We kind of missed an opportunity to do some interviews and things like that but, you know, you gotta hunt.”

This story was first published in the winter 2016 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.