It’s time to celebrate Morley Nelson’s legacy — and the birds of prey he loved

An adult ferruginous hawk
An adult ferruginous hawk BLM Boise

I owe my devout love for birds of prey to the late Morley Nelson, the great champion for birds of prey who lived much of his adult life in Boise.

Back in the day, when I covered environmental issues for the Idaho Statesman, Morley would call me and tell me I had to write a story about a particular birds of prey issue, and this would mean going to his house in the Boise Foothills, where he’d take me to his hawk house, known as The Mews.

It was a spell-binding experience to see all of these beautiful raptors up close and personal. There was his beautiful bald eagle named “Pearl,” a majestic golden eagle named “Slim,” a prized gyrfalcon from Alaska named “Thor” and numerous other birds that he might be nursing back to health or using for conservation films.

Whenever Morley called, you knew it might take a while before he got to the point of the story, but it was always worth the wait. He had a charming way of showing you the awesome beauty of birds of prey, and then he’d drill down on whatever issue was threatening the birds at the moment and convince you to do something about it. He was a master at that.

Morley accomplished many things in his life, but most people agree that the most important thing he achieved as a conservationist was working with top Bureau of Land Management officials, the University of Idaho, ranchers, the late Gov. Cecil Andrus and elected officials to protect the largest nesting population of birds of prey in North America in the Snake River canyon south of Kuna. The area is known today as the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the official creation of the conservation area, which protected 485,000 acres of land and 81 miles of the Snake River canyon from Walter’s Ferry south of Nampa to Bruneau. It was a remarkable achievement backed by Idaho’s political leaders, particularly Andrus, Rep. Larry LaRocco, Sen. Larry Craig and the late Sen. Jim McClure.

The BLM has put a huge amount of effort into creating a yearlong celebration to commemorate the original achievement and pay tribute to the people who made it possible, including Morley.

The events planned include opportunities to see birds of prey up close at public libraries in the Treasure Valley. There are two events this week: at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Kuna Library, and at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Garden City Library. During spring break, March 26-30, there will be daily programs from 10:30 to 11 a.m. at the Boise Watershed Center. These are family-friendly presentations that your kids will enjoy.

“A lot of people don’t understand the incredible resource we have here at the NCA,” says Amanda Hoffman, area manager for the BLM. “It’s the largest and densest population of nesting raptors in North America, if not the world (approximately 800 pairs of nesting birds of prey). The rich history of people caring so passionately about this area is important, and what we’re trying to do is recognize the people who were involved in the designation, and introduce the NCA to a whole new set of people who might not have been familiar with it before.”

Maybe you’d like to learn more about how to identify birds of prey? In April, there will be several guided outings to learn about raptor identification. On April 27, you can learn how to identify 24 raptor species that inhabit the national conservation area in a special class. The following day, you can go on a field trip to test your identification skills. Be sure to RVSP for these classes with the BLM contacts below.

Also in April, you could participate in what the BLM hopes will be Idaho’s largest trash cleanup event on April 21. Sad but true, a lot of people see the edges of the birds of prey area as a place to dump old furniture, tires, appliances, building materials and more ... Let’s get hundreds of people out there to help! Let’s break the record!

On April 14, I’ll lead a hike for the BLM in Celebration Park to Halverson Lake. This is an easy, kid-friendly hike that provides multiple opportunities for hands-on learning about the Bonneville Flood, viewing Native American petroglyphs, seeing birds of prey flying above and learning about Morley Nelson.

See the full list of events coming up this year at blm.gov. To inquire and sign up, contact Cory Coffman at the BLM at ccoffman@blm.gov or (208) 384-3485.

Morley personally discovered what is now known as the conservation area in 1948, a few days after moving to Boise. He saw an incredible diversity of birds of prey flying around, hunting for prey on the sagebrush flats above the canyon, and golden eagles and prairie falcons nesting in the canyon walls. How fortunate it was that a man like Morley, who was passionate and knowledgeable about birds of prey, discovered this wildlife resource that was unique in the world.

In the late 1960s, Morley worked with BLM officials to catalog all of the golden eagle nests in the canyon with help from University of Idaho graduate students. They confirmed 25 active nests in 1968 and 36 active nests in 1969. The BLM recommended a protective withdrawal of 26,255 acres that would provide rim-to-rim protection for the area in 1971. Rogers Morton, the Interior secretary at the time, signed it.

Over the next two decades, numerous research projects laid the groundwork for protecting the “dinner table” — the sagebrush flats above the canyon rims — for birds of prey that nested in the canyon. The prey base for the birds — ground squirrels and rabbits — lived on the flats. All of this work led to the designation of the larger birds of prey area in 1993.

When I wrote Morley’s biography, “Cool North Wind: Morley Nelson’s Life with Birds of Prey” (2002, Caxton Press), I pointed out that Morley touched people around the world via his many films for Walt Disney’s “Wide World of Color” series, his own falconry and birds of prey films, and his conservation work with the Peregrine Fund.

Many people observed Morley flying birds in his North End backyard as a falconer. He gave countless presentations all over the West with a golden eagle on his fist, and he hosted hundreds of boat tours in the Snake River canyon with outfitter Steve Guinn. Morley’s love for birds of prey was infectious; he knew how to spread the word in a lasting way.

Let’s all pay tribute to Morley’s many achievements by engaging in 25th anniversary activities and learn about what we can do to conserve and improve the national conservation area for years to come. The birds of prey area needs more love and attention, and this is the year to make a renewed effort to enhance the largest nursery for birds of prey in North America.

Steve Stuebner is a regular contributor to the Idaho Outdoors section. You can read his blog at http://stuebysoutdoorjournal.blogspot.com.