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Morley Nelson, birds of prey, and Snake River Canyon

Painting of Morley Nelson looking over the Birds of Prey Snake River National Conservation Area which he vigorously campaigned for. A Peregrine rests on his arm. Original acrylic painting by Hans Jurgen Peeters, 1984. Previously owned bythe Peregrine Fund. (Image courtesy of the Archives of Falconry, Boise, Idaho.)

I can think of no better legacy than to protect a landscape in perpetuity for wild species, but the politics of preservation are never easy. Near Boise, Idaho, Morlan “Morley” Nelson sought to protect the basalt cliffs of the Snake River Canyon for birds of prey at the same time eagles and raptors were being poisoned and shot by stockmen fearful of losing lambs. Nelson had to prove that raptors had their place in the natural world, but in the 1960s the environmental movement was just beginning.

Growing up along the Sheyenne River in North Dakota, during a pivotal moment in Nelson’s youth he watched a peregrine falcon strike and kill a duck by dropping out of the sky at 200 miles an hour. From that day forward he would become obsessed with falconry and habitat requirements for birds of prey. During World War II, here in Colorado, Nelson taught at Camp Hale for the 10th Mountain Division. Injured in the war, he earned the Bronze and Silver Star as well as the Purple Heart.

Earning a soil science degree in college, Nelson moved to Boise with his wife Betty Ann to begin a long career with the Soil Conservation Service. Though he spent years studying dirt, his soul was in the sky above and his heart flew with raptors. By the mid-1950s his expertise resulted in a 16 mm film with National Geographic on modern falconry. Television viewing increased exponentially in the postwar era and Morley Nelson rode the wave of popularity for nature films by consulting on seven movies for Walt Disney including “True Life” and “Ida the offbeat Eagle.”

He also found a national audience by working with Marlin Perkins whose Sunday evening television program “Wild Kingdom” was viewed by millions of Americans. Falconry began to flourish after the war, but Nelson’s unique contribution included not only a love and respect for raptors, but also a keen understanding of soils, habitat, and prey species. At a time when “ecosystem” was not a commonly understood phrase, Nelson identified thousands of acres of Bureau of Land Management land near Boise as the perfect sanctuary for raptors, then in rapid decline because of the insecticide DDT, which would be chronicled by Rachel Carson in her 1962 book Silent Spring.

A prairie falcon soars above the Morley Nelson Birds of Prey Snake River National Conservation Area. (Eden Ravecca/ Boise State University)

The cliffs and dramatic precipices of the Snake River Canyon west of Boise provided miles of nesting areas for diverse raptors and other birds including Western Meadowlarks, Prairie Falcons, short-earred owls, Golden Eagles and burrowing owls. The volcanic cliffs made perfect perches and the large numbers of black-tailed Jackrabbits and Piute ground squirrels provided breakfast, lunch and dinner. “This unique combination of soils, climate, geology, and vegetation has created a perfect habitat for birds of prey. You can’t go in any direction without losing several of the important characteristics that make up this remarkable situation,” Morley Nelson explained. “The soils change, the geology changes, the climate changes; and in no other area in the Northern Hemisphere do these combinations of factors occur to such benefit to the birds of prey.”

Nelson knew the importance of the Snake River Canyon. The plateau on top had deep soils and vegetation rich with winter fat and Wyoming big sagebrush, both food staples for sheep, but the area clearly had other scientific and environmental values. Nelson’s personal philosophy included the ethical concepts of concern, knowledge, and action. Like John Muir and Aldo Leopold, Nelson believed in wild landscapes, but unlike Muir and Leopold, Nelson focused on raptors. Not just where they lived and how they hunted, but also how threatened raptors had become in postwar America as the West boomed with new houses, subdivisions, industries, and power lines, which often electrocuted unsuspecting birds that landed on high wires. Working with the Idaho Power Company and the Edison Electric Institute, Nelson helped to design and invent platforms and power pole guards to protect raptors from high-voltage transmission lines.

An early color photograph of Morley Nelson who became enraptured with falconry at the age of 10 when a prairie falcon struck a teal duck on the family ranch in North Dakota. A member of the 10th Mountain Division located at Camp Hale, CO, he earned the nickname Falcon. Here he appears with a prairie falcon. (Photocourtesy of the Archives of Falconry, Boise, Idaho.)

When the BLM’s formal mission became law in 1976 the Snake River Canyon “was recognized fairly early on as a raptor area. It was set aside under secretarial order by the secretary of the interior. Birds were feeding in the sagebrush and on Townsend ground squirrels,” remembers former BLM Idaho Director Dean Bibles. “We had all kinds of raptors and 35 top-notch researchers from major universities. We radio collared falcons and the first falcon went 13 miles north of the canyon to hunt. We had all kinds of hearings and it got heated because people didn’t want the birds to have priority on the land. We saved it with a 20-year withdrawal under the secretary’s approval.”

“It’s the only area globally where the boundaries were established by science,” Bibles explained to me. “The boundaries are there because the experts told us where they should be.”

But any action by a secretary of the interior can be reversed. To truly protect an area, Congress must be convinced. Over a decade later Congress acted. In 1993 the Senate and the House approved, and President Bill Clinton signed into law, designation of the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area with 485,000 acres of raptor habitat. In 2009 a new law recognized the pivotal role of Morley Nelson. To honor him the NCA is now the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. What a fitting tribute for a man who helped save 81 miles of the Snake River Canyon.

When I visited, I took three pairs of binoculars but I saw few if any raptors. My timing wasn’t the best. Over 700 pairs or raptors nest there each year including 150-200 pairs of prairie falcons. It was June so I hoped to see hatchlings careening off the canyon walls, but all I got were gossiping glossy ravens. One dynamic black duo practiced their barrel rolls about 20 yards over my head. I was impressed but I really had hawks and eagles on my mind, especially after studying all the interpretive signs and learning wing patterns to determine different species.

Had I seen any of the prairie falcons, I’m not sure I could have understood what they were doing because, “not unlike human behavior it is sometimes difficult for even experts to tell when the falcons are aggressively defending their territory or playfully engaging in courtship rituals,” according to one interpretive sign. To keep visitors on the canyon’s rim from leaping over the low stone barrier wall and exploring nesting areas on cliff ledges, a sign admonishes, “These birds may attack with outstretched talons if they feel nesting young are in danger.”

Morley Nelson from Boise, Utah pioneered nature films with raptors for Walt Disney and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. He helped Americans to learn that raptors have a vital place in ecosystems. Here he poses with a Golden Eagle. Photocourtesy of the Archives of Falconry, Boise, Idaho.

I think I saw an American kestrel, but I was alone on the rim without an experienced birder to verify positive identification. I had Dedication Point all to myself. An updraft came from the river below and I could see distant mountains at the horizon’s edge. A bronze plaque honored BLM Boise District Manager Edward C. Booker “who recognized the meaning of this canyon and charted a course to preserve its worth” so that “the eagle, the falcon and other raptors may soar free for man’s inspiration.”

I wish it was that simple. I wish we could set aside vast acreage for raptor habitat and continue to congratulate ourselves, but native sagebrush ecosystems are threatened by fire. When habitats burn then there is the plague of invasive cheatgrass which can explosively carry fire uphill and continue to decimate landscapes. Sagebrush takes decades to return. Eagles eat Jackrabbits. Rabbits rely on sagebrush for food and shelter and now there are fewer and fewer rabbits near the Snake River Birds of Prey cliff side nesting areas.

John Muir told us that when we find one thing in nature, we realize it is connected to everything else. Aldo Leopold urged us to save all parts of an ecosystem. When Morley Nelson began his successful campaign to protect birds of prey and golden eagles along the Snake River, how could he have known that he also needed to save sagebrush.

Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.