Denver Holt and his team of three wade into a patch of thick brush on a privately owned plot near Missoula’s western boundary. Suddenly, five long-eared owls flush from their roost. Two escape, while the other three fly into a large, soft net that Holt’s team has prepared in advance. For the scientists at the Owl Research Institute, or ORI, this is how the day’s work begins.
“It’s crazy,” says Jessica Larson, program coordinator at ORI. “We have more than 1,700 long-eared owls banded on this project. It is one of the largest data sets in the world on long-eared owls.”
Holt says it is also the nation’s longest-running study on the species, now in its 28th year.
Holt, who founded the Charlo-based ORI in 1987, holds up one of the medium-sized nocturnal birds. Its big round eyes are an iridescent yellow. It weighs half a pound. Two tufts of feathers stick up from its head. It makes a clicking noise as if to indicate impatience.
His team measures the owls’ wingspans, weighs them, takes DNA samples, bands them and then lets them go.
“Probably the most important thing we have learned is that [the long-eared owl] population is declining,” says Holt. “When we look at the 27 years of data, moving to 28, when we graph it and show the regression lines there is a downward trend.”
Holt says there are roughly 6,000 long-eared owls left in the United States, making the species the least populous owl in the country. Because the species is not well known, Holt says they do not garner public attention like larger, more iconic birds.
“I think it calls for immediate attention,” says Holt. “If these numbers are even close to being true, then we need to get outside and start doing surveys to try to determine their status.”