The expression "for the birds" has a special meaning in southern Idaho these days. Thirty-five miles southwest of Boise, the state capital, is the Snake River Birds of Prey Conservation Area. Here is the largest, most dense, and most diverse population of golden eagles, falcons, hawks, and owls that scientists have yet discovered on earth.

Federal effort to protect this area is the focus of an often acrimonious state controversy. The birds of prey area has been called everything from an "irreplaceable, international treasure" to an "800,000-acre rodent ranch" here. It is embroiled in the antigovernment passions of the Sagebrush Rebellion, attempts by citizens groups in some Western states to turn over federal lands to the state, and is being used as a counter in state politics which, because the state's population is slightly less than that of Baltimore, have a personal flavor.

A golden eagle twists her long neck until her head is almost upside down. She keeps her dark, liquid eyes focused on Morlan (Morley) Nelson. He is a biologist who specializes in raptors, or birds of prey, and one of their foremost champions. He explains why the birds of prey area is so special:

"The basalt cliffs were carved out by a 390-foot flood from a prehistoric ocean. This created thousands of ledges and hollows that are perfect for nesting. It is one of the few places in the word where the prey area is above the nesting area: This means that the birds don't have to carry their catch thousands of feet up to their nests. The soil in the flats above the cliffs is perfect for burrowing, the grass is plentiful so ground squirrels and jack rabbits are unusually abundant. The cliffs are perpendicular to the prevailing winds, which means there is almost always an updraft which the birds can catch."

In short, it is raptor paradise. At the last count well over 600 pairs of 14 different species of birds of prey have been counted along the 70-mile stretch of the meandering Snake River. This includes over 200 pairs of prairie falcon, 5 percent of the world's breeding population, and 34 pairs of golden eagle. Birds banded here have reportedly been seen as far west as Washington, as far east as Kansas, and as far south as Guatemala.

In 1971 Secretary of the Interior Rogers C. B. Morton formed the original Birds of Prey Area. This withdrawal of 31,000 acres of the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property primarily protected the birds' nesting area. At the time, there was little local oppostion.

"At the dedication, I told Rogers he had protected the bedroom but not the pantry," Cecil D. Andrus, who was governor during that time, recalls. As interior secretary under former President Jimmy Carter, he played a central role in the continuing controversy.

To determine the space needed by the unique community of eagles, falcons, hawks, and owls to support themselves, BLM commissioned a four-year scientific study of the raptors, and in 1977 Mr. Andrus withdrew 230,000 acres as a study area. BLM and university scientists counted the raptors and inventoried the ground squirrel and jack rabbit populations. They used radiotelemetry to track the birds' movements. They also monitored nearby agricultural fields to determine how plentiful the prey population was.

As a result, "we established a biological boundary," Mike Kochert, a BLM biologist, explains. This boundary encompassed some 800,000 acres: Eagles and falcons hunt as much as 15 miles from their nests and consume thousands of ground squirrels per season.

This was pared down to 720,000 acres within the Bureau of Land Management, and the mandatory environmental impact statement (EIS) for the expansion was prepared. When this document was released in the summer of 1979, controversy erupted.

Farmers, particularly in the small community of Mountain Home on the periphery, were upset. A number had filed on areas within the proposed boundaries under the Desert Land Entry, Carey, and Idaho Admission Acts; federal provisions allowing private citizens to purchase desert lands at a nominal price. Cattle and sheepmen expressed concern that they might not be allowed to continue to graze their livestock in this area. State Land Board members questioned the fate of the 44,000 acres of state land included.

Feelings were so intense that opponents to the expansion persuaded Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company to withdraw a Wild Kingdom program on the Birds of Prey Conservation Area.

David LeRoy, state attorney general, land board member, and ambitious young politican, recites the basis of his opposition: "The EIS was dumped on us in very short order. We had only two weeks to comment," though on request, the comment period was extended by a month. "The study itself was flawed because it did not include a full range of options," he says, "including limited but gradual agricultural expansion and joint state-federal management of the area."

In response to local pressure, Mr. Andrus accepted a compromise proposed by Gov. John Evans the following spring. This reduced the area by 119,000 acres, mainly by excising private land on the periphery. Also, the BLM assured local interests that all present uses of the area -- livestock grazing, hunting and fishing, use of off-road vehicles, National Guard maneuvers -- could continue. Only irrigated agriculture, which the study found drastically reduced the amount of food species for the birds of prey, would be prohibited.

Legislation was drafted and submitted to Congress where it languished. "I could get no one to take action," Mr. Andrus admits. This was due in part to the opposition of Idaho's Republican Sen. James A. McClure, and influential member of the Energy and Natural resources Committee.

Because of this, in the waning days of the Carter administration Mr. Andrus set aside the area for 20 years by administrative fiat, despite assurances that he would wait for Congress to act. Acting under provisions of the Federal Land Policy Management Act, Mr. Andrus defends the measure as necessary to spur Congress into action.

It did spur his opponents into action. Senator McClure denounced the action as "an act of extreme arrogance and abuse of discretionary power." But he has said he will hold hearings on the birds-of-prey issue sometime this year. The State Land Board has asked Mr. Andrus's successor, James Watt, to rescind the order.

As founder of an organization called Sagebrush Rebellion, Inc., Vern Ravenscroft has been representing the interests of the 500 or so individuals who had filed for land in the conservation area. A longtime political adversary of Andrus, he has challenged the Andrus decision in court.

"I was an enthusiastic supporter for the original 31,000 acres," the silver-haired, square-jawed opponent says. "At that time, there were specific promises made: that man and bird could live together; that careful and planned development could take place; that this could become a showplace of how man and nature could live together harmoniously," he says.

In his mind, agriculture and eagles are not in conflict. "Old agricultural areas provide a comparable prey base as the desert." ("Old" agriculture uses gravity-fed irrigation canals, which provide good habitats for ground animals along the weedy banks."New" agriculture pumps water through sprinklers, eliminating the canals and the lush habitats.)

"In times of drought, in fact, the rabbits and rodents come into the irrigated fields to eat. As a result, their populations are even higher than they would be normally," Mr. Ravenscroft argues.

"This is an understandable misconception," says BLM's Mr. Kochert. New, or clean agriculture has only one-tenth to one-twentieth the concentration of prey animals as the desert, he says. The BLM included only new agriculture in the EIS because it is the only type which would be economically viable.Old-style, or dirty, agriculture does have more rodents and rabbits than clean agriculture, but still less than the natural areas, he maintains.

It is also true that ground squirrels and rabbits that live near irrigated fields continue to breed in drought conditions, unlike their cousins in the wild , the government biologist explains. However, he argues that the natural range offers far greater stability for the birds of prey. When the farmer shifts from one crop to another, the prey species population changes. AGricultural areas in Idaho can be cultivated for an average of six years before productivity starts to drop. After it is abandoned, an area that has been plowed is no longer suitable for burrowing. As a result, rodent and rabbit populations do not reestablish themselves.

Messrs. Ravenscroft and LeRoy are suspicious of these conclusions, believing that Mr. Andrus twisted the scientific facts to support the action he had determined was best.

Opponents of the expansion have been largely successful at casting the issue as one of "man or eagle." This characterization raises raptor-lover Nelson's dander. "It's not a case of man against eagle, because there is ten times as much land in Idaho as there is water to irrigate it," he says.

The question of expanding irrigated agriculture in this area is a major point of attack for Ken Robison of the Idaho Conservation League. Where Mr. Ravenscroft portrays those who have filed for land in the area as hard-working family folk, Mr. Robison says many are well-to-do land speculators.

Further, the entire state is subsidizing these people because of the irrigation water they consume, the conservationist asserts. For each additional acre-foot (the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of land with water a foot deep) of Snake River water used up in agriculture, the amount of electricity produced by the dams downstream is reduced substantially. This is cheap electricity which must be replaced by power from new, expensive generators. As a result, each acre-foot costs the Idaho consumer $175 while the irrigator pays only $15.

"Besides, it is irrigation which locks out other uses of the land, not birds of prey," Mr. Robison adds.

"There is a certain poetry to Andrus' position," ,r. LeRoy admits with obvious admiration. "No existing use will be precluded. But there is a subtlety: Every use is made subservient to the life of the ground squirrel."

There is a major National Guard training area included in the withdrawn land. "The first time a tank runs over a ground squirrel, out goes the Guard!" opponents have warned. Similarly, "the first time your cow steps on a ground squirrel, out go the cattle!" they have told area ranchers.

BLM officials this interpretation of the withdrawal act. Only agriculture was specifically prohibited, they say. To exclude grazing or the National Guard , another order would be necessary.

Meanwhile, the legal staff in the interior Department is reviewing the situation, but no action appears imminent. And Senator McClure will be holding hearings on the issue later this year

Despite the senator's previous opposition to Mr. Andrus, supporters of the birds of prey area expansion say they are optimistic about the outcome of the hearings. Mr. Nelson, who believes the size of the area could be reduced substantially without hurting the raptors, has been urging Senator McClure to support a more modest expansion of the area and has found him receptive.

"McClure has supported conservation issues when they are clearly the will of the people," Mr. Robison agrees.

Whatever happens, the eagles, falcons, and their feathered friends are not in imminent danger. There are no immediate plans to cultivate large amounts of the area in question.

Should efforts to protect the area fail, "I'll just have to saddle up my eagles and hit the lecture circuit again," mr. Nelson says. He has given lectues on eagles all over the world. Part of his performance includes holding a golden eagle on his bare arm to show how gentle it really is.

"After all, we want to establish an area that will last, not one that will be broken up in a few years," he reasons.

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