Morgan Heim – Young Photographer Profile

Photographs by Morgan Heim

Interview by David C. Lester

Morgan Heim in the field. © Sara Thomas WWF

Morgan Heim is a full-time freelance nature and wildlife photographer who brings unparalleled intensity and compassion to her work.  The easiest way to appreciate this is to take a look at her website, morganheim.com and go through the projects she has tackled over the past eleven years.  From photographing the work of drug trafficking organizations (primarily the dismantling of their work by scientists and law enforcement agents) that run industrial-scale marijuana growing operations in California forests with an estimated value of $31 billion, and that have a terrible impact on the environment, to stopping along the road to memorialize animals that have been killed by motor vehicles, Morgan’s approach to conservation photography leaves a deep and contemplative impression on the viewer that doesn’t pass quickly.

While Morgan feels lucky to get to work steadily on projects, there is still a tremendous amount that she  wants to do.  “My overarching goal is to have the work that I do provide a meaningful contribution to conservation,” Morgan says.  “I’ve gotten a good start on a lot of things, but there’s a lot left to do, both on the projects I’ve already undertaken, as well as new projects in the future.  For example, fishing cats are still endangered, and a little money was raised to help them, but my work won’t save the fishing cat,” she says.  Morgan says that when she works on a project, she wants to be part of the process and part of the community.  She enjoys the journey and the challenge.  She’s not only excited about creating images, but how she is able to use them.

A deer killed by a motor vehicle that has been memorialized by Morgan with the placement of flowers and a carefully lighted image. © Morgan Heim

 

Morgan got her start in the nature photography community through NANPA, by applying for and being accepted into the college scholarship program.  For the first time, she was able to network with people her own age that were into science and nature photography, and found it a very welcoming community.  Morgan is a Senior Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, and is a former member of the NANPA board.  Her writing and photographs have appeared in BBC Wildlife, Smithsonian, Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund magazines.  In addition, her film collaborations have appeared in the Banff Mountain Film Festival, Adventure Film, Telluride, the International Wildlife Film Festival, and G2 Green Earth Festival.

 

A scientist works with the team to destroy a massive crop of marijuana in the forests of California. © Morgan Heim

 

Law enforcement agents work to dismantle the sophisticated infrastructure assembled by drug traffickers. © Morgan Heim

 

All that glitters is not gold. In California, trespass marijuana grows account for an estimated $31 billion industry. The grows are sophisticated and covert operations. Rather than clear an area, many cartels will instead plant marijuana in the understory. This particular grow on National Forest land in the High Sierras was busted and reclaimed. Only the divots of where plants used to be remain. While the remnants of this former crop look neat and tidy, marijuana grown on public land is quickly poisoning the environment, wildlife and water. The plot in this one grow was the site for more than 1,200 plants. Some grows reach as many as 40,000. © Morgan Heim

 

Bison at the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma recovering from an outbreak of Mycoplasma bovis, a deadly pneumonia-like bacteria that resulted in almost certain mortality.  © Morgan Heim

 

Morgan was commissioned by Nature Conservancy photo editor Melissa Ryan to photograph a story about the outbreak of Mycoplasma bovis at the Nature Conservancy preserve in Oklahoma, and she traveled there to cover the efforts to restore the bison to health.  There was a herd of about 2,500 animals that had been exposed to the bacteria, which caused weight loss, trouble breathing, and lethargy.  The Nature Conservancy partnered with Ted Turner Ranch to develop an experimental vaccine, and decided to take a risk on what seemed to be the only glimmer of hope.  The treatment was risky, and had never been used on this scale before.  Moreover, the medicine had to be delivered after rounding up the herd during calving season.  Thankfully, the vaccine program worked, and the bison recovered.  This is the only medicine that has worked thus far.

 

An island scrub jay on Santa Cruz Island, The Channel Islands. © Morgan Heim

 

The island scrub jay is a smart and beautiful blue bird that lives only on Santa Cruz island off the California coast.  And, it faces many challenges.  For years, they have fought habitat loss and invasive species, including pigs and goats, and more recently, Argentine ants.  Now, climate change presents a further challenge to these wonderful birds – West Nile carrying mosquitoes.  In addition, drought, fire, bark beetle and sea level rise have become a disaster for the birds, of which there are only a few thousand on the island.

Conservationists hope to reintroduce island scrub jays to Santa Rosa island, which enjoys a cooler marine climate than Santa Cruz, and while the habitat on the island is degraded, these birds are resilient, and researchers are optimistic that they will thrive here.  But it’s not a done deal yet.  They are very much in the proving ground, research stage, and they’ve got some convincing to do to get the National Parks Service on board.

 

Research assistant Elena Daggett releases an Island scrub jay after banding and data collection. Often the birds are so relaxed during this process that they will remain perched in the hand long after they could fly free. © Morgan Heim

 

The wings of the scrub jay are best suited for short flights. They hop rather than soar, a behavior that lends itself well to dense forests and their ground-searching, seed caching tendencies. The lack of ability to fly long distances has kept these birds isolated on Santa Cruz Island. © Morgan Heim

 

Dead and dying pine trees blanket the hill slopes on Santa Cruz Island in The Channel Islands. Just a few years ago, these forests appeared healthy. Change can come quickly to this ecosystem. © Morgan Heim

 

As mentioned earlier, to learn more about Morgan’s work, check out her website here.  With the environment and wildlife under so many threats, we are fortunate to have photographers like Morgan who do a deep dive into the projects they’re working on, keeping us informed of threats to our ecosystem we may not be aware of, and providing inspiration for other nature photographers to raise the bar for their own work.