At the southern most point of the Rocky Mountain Trench, the Pleistocene’s glacial assault ground to a halt, and the receding ice bled into rich terminal moraine.
The melt left behind a vast stretch of bogs, fens and marshes, scattered between pot-holed ponds and islands of grassland -- a place now known as the Ninepipes Wildlife Refuge.
Located within the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwest Montana, the area hosts a biotic party of plants, insects, fish, reptiles, mammals and birds. The revelry includes megafauna celebrities such as mountain lions, grizzly bears and Rocky Mountain elk, right alongside bald and golden eagles, peregrine and prairie falcons, and the festivities even boast a restored population of trumpeter swans.
One character, curtained by the fall of night, perches silent just off stage. You can almost imagine Denver Holt, director of the Owl Research Institute (ORI), turning a spotlight on the quiet, mystical face of owls.
Following the Trench through the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, this riparian corridor offers critical nesting habitat, and provides a significant “flyway” for migrating raptors, all within sight of Holt’s ORI wildlife blinds.
Many owl species visit the Ninepipes area: long-eared, short-eared, great horned, barn and, occasionally, even snowy owls. In the surrounding Crown region: northern pygmy, northern saw-whet, western screech, and flammulated owls can be found.
For more than 25 years, ORI has been conducting scientific research, investigating the ecology, natural history and habitat relationships of owls. Such long-term studies have been otherwise scarce, and the world’s 225 species of owls have remained shrouded in myth.
ORI’s pioneering work has achieved international recognition for research, education and conservation. The Institute’s work has been published in many scientific papers and journals, featured in books and movies, even commanded the cover of National Geographic Magazine.
But despite the academic acclaim, still the outfit runs on muddy boots and fieldwork.
At ORI, habit of observation remains as significant as genetic sampling, and northwest Montana offers the best of all worlds for that outdoor work. Researchers have ready access to field sites, and conduct citizen-science programs that provide visitors, volunteers and participants an excellent in-the-field experience for wildlife observation.
From the fens and fields of Ninepipes, Holt has extended ORI’s range deep into Glacier National Park, where 13 owl species have been known to haunt. Because owls ignore national boundaries, the Institute’s mission reaches throughout the Crown of the Continent and beyond.
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