William L. Finley
(1876-1953)
 

William Finley was born in an era when wildlife photography was coming of age. Prior to the mid 1800s, documentation of nature's bounty was largely the work of artists. Early use of the camera was limited to landscapes and stationary objects. By the mid-1870s, however, photography of wildlife in its natural state was beginning to yield surprisingly excellent results.

Finley's interest in nature, and birds in particular, seemed to him to have been there from the beginning. He was born in southern California but moved to Oregon at the age of ten where he made friends with Herman Bohlman, the boy next door. Together the two boys began exploring and collecting, frequently securing specimens of rare or infrequently encountered birds.

In 1894 the two young men and several other collectors formed the North Western Ornithology Association. But it was a time when egg and bird collections were being criticized by a more ecologically aware public, so Finley and Bohlman turned to photography. Early photographic equipment was heavy and cumbersome, and field work was amazingly complicated. During their nine-year partnership, Finely and Bohlman routinely scaled to the uppermost reaches of trees or cliffs carrying large and unwieldy equipment on their backs. They were known to wade into marshes or paddle canoes carefully protecting their glass plates and chemical vials in their mission to photograph extraordinary subjects. The quality of their surviving prints is amazingly good. In fact, Finley's and Bohlman's photographs of adult condors taken in 1906 "surpass any series of still pictures of the condor which have been taken with modern high-speed equipment." Many of their photographs were considered the very best of their time and are still used today.

In 1906 Finley and Bohlman followed separate paths and Finley's new wife, Nellie Irene Barnhart, became his lifelong photography partner. Together they gained national recognition for their three wildlife books and a wealth of popular wildlife movies, film rights of which were eventually released to major motion picture studios such as Paramount, Warner Brothers and Universal. In addition, Finley wrote countless conservation articles for wildlife publications such as Nature Magazine.

Coincidental with his photography, Finley was also a zealous conservationist. He threw the support of his organization behind passage of the Lacey Act in 1900, a bill which sought to eliminate the millinery industry's plume and feather trade. In 1906, after he was elected president of the Audubon Society, Finley became an informant against Oregon milliners who were buying illegal egret plumes for use in their fashionable hats. He was reported to have even pulled the plumed hat off a Portland prostitute and thrown it in the gutter!

Perhaps Finley's greatest legacy, however, is his contribution to the expansion of the National Wildlife Refuge System. He believed that no matter whether or not game laws were rigorously enforced, "birds like people cannot live without homes." There had to be a conscious effort to preserve wildlife habitats or the birds would simply disappear. President Theodore Roosevelt, relying on naturalists to suggest critical sites, had created the first refuge, Pelican Island in Florida, by Executive Order in 1903. After seeing photographs of Three Arch Rocks area on Oregon's northern coast taken by Finley and Bohlman, Roosevelt created the first bird refuge on the west coast in 1907 which today is part of the Oregon Coastal Refuges Complex.

In 1908, the largest refuges to be established up to that time were created in Klamath and Malheur, Oregon, largely as a result of Finley and Bohlman's photography and the support of Finley and his associates. After the drought years of the 1930s, the Malheur Lake region was devastated. Finley worked closely with "Ding" Darling, Chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey at the time, and then with Ira Gabrielson, first director of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to gain control of the Blitzen River and release the dams to restore the refuge area.

In 1911, Finley began a long career in public service. He helped institute Oregon's first Fish and Game Commission and was appointed State Game Warden. Under his direction, Oregon lakes previously depleted were stocked with trout from state hatcheries in a railroad car called "The Rainbow" which was specifically developed to carry trout throughout the state. Finley resigned his post as Game Commissioner in 1930 and devoted the rest of his life to his writing and his nature films and continued to lend his support in behalf of conservation issues. After his death the wintering and resting habitat for the dusky Canada goose in Oregon's Willamette Valley was set aside as a national refuge and named the William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge in his honor.


Worth Mathewson. William L. Finely: Pioneer Wildlife Photographer.
Carl B. Koford. The California Condor. National Audubon Society, 1953
Nature Magazine, May 1926