The Owl Research Institute (ORI) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to owl and wildlife research, conservation, and education.
We conduct long-term research on owls, their prey species, and their relationship to the habitat in which they live. We use these data to help maintain viable populations.
Additionally, we collaborate on strategic projects; educate the public about owls; and provide research data to land management agencies and conservation partners.
WHAT WE DO
We focus our time and efforts in the field, with the owls, making observations and logging data. Our commitment to long-term research is rooted in natural history and requires patience, dedication, and a vast awareness of ecosystems at large.
Our studies are conducted in natural, uncontrolled habitats. Wild owls are extremely difficult to find, not to mention capture, for research – none of our research is conducted on captive owls and we are very conscious of handling times. Study sites are always subject to change, due to owl behavior, migration, or human encroachment, and are unpredictable.
We share findings with resource managers, scientists, and the public, to improve environmental decision making. Our data assists with forest management plans, habitat conservation efforts, and the listing and de-listing of critical species.
BOOTS ON THE GROUND RESEARCH
It's one of the core tenets of the ORI. We spend hundreds of hours each year in the field and pride ourselves on the ability to operate in a variety of landscapes, uncertain conditions, and the ever-present logistical challenges that accompany working outdoors with wild animals. We often experience exhaustion, frustration, and exasperation. Things break, cars die on the side of the mountain, essential equipment gets stolen, and weather can stall our efforts at any time. Sometimes it all seems to happen at once.
But when it's all said and done, we love what we do. For all the challenges that we face in the field, we have at least as many moments that inspire us to look further and to go farther. We are grateful for the opportunity to study these owls in their natural environments and are compelled by each and every one of these species to continue to try to understand them.
It all began with a fascination for owls. In 1988 when the Owl Research Institute became official, we didn't really imagine ourselves as a conservation group. It was just about the owls.
Climate issues, habitat loss and declining owl populations, however, have forced us to approach research in a new light.
More and more, a substantial portion of our work focuses on understanding causes behind trends in the data. It is our hope that this information can be used to support better decisions for natural resources management.
After 30+ years of field work and research, it is less about discovering owls, more about protecting their future.
Location and Facilities
The ORI is headquartered out of a farmhouse near the small town of Charlo, Montana. Located on the Flathead Indian Reservation, we are surrounded by an ecologically diverse landscape containing unique habitat for most of Montana's 15 owl species. Important neighbors include the National Bison Range and the Ninepipe Wildlife Refuge.
The Institute houses office space, living quarters for visiting professionals, a lab and classroom, a writing hut, and many outbuildings and barns for equipment.
From the ORI, researchers have close access to field sites and program participants have opportunities for in-the-field experience and wildlife observation. While most of our studies are based in western Montana, each summer we migrate to Barrow, Alaska to conduct our Snowy Owl research.
The ORI intentionally maintains a small staff. Being small poses challenges, especially during the busy field season, but it also allows us to remain field-based and efficient. It would be remiss, however, to think that we do it alone.
Ranchers and community members keep us informed about what they see in their barns, fields, and creek beds; volunteers, interns, and seasonal employees contribute hundreds of hours every year to our projects; cam watchers send us important video highlights; and talented photographers capture the owls in the most incredible ways
They are all vital to our success. Their work and dedication are invaluable to us and we thank them all.
Founder and President
Denver Holt is the founder and president of the ORI, a nonprofit he started 30 years ago. Today, it is one of the premier owl research centers in the world, just as Holt is one of the leading experts.
Holt is a widely published author who has been featured in many articles from National Geographic to the New York Times, as well as in many television programs. He has educated and entertained people from all walks of life and enjoys guiding, meeting new people, and expanding his knowledge of wildlife and the natural world.
Beth Mendelsohn earned her graduate degree from the University of Wyoming with an emphasis on Great Gray Owl genetics. While Beth has a long volunteer history with ORI, she officially joined our team in 2019. She is a lifelong naturalist and is passionate about all raptors and their conservation.
Her research, focused primarily on North American owls, has afforded her the opportunity to travel and work throughout western Montana, Alaska, and Wyoming. She shares her passion for field biology, natural history, and long-term research through public speaking, scientific papers, and bringing the public into the field to observe research in action.
Steve Hiro, MD
Steve Hiro has been a volunteer with the Owl Research Institute for over 20 years. He assists with all field projects but has a special interest in Pygmy Owls - dedicating hundreds of hours each year to finding, observing, and documenting their behavior.
Steve is a retired heart surgeon. He connected with the ORI when he won a Day in the Field auction item at a fundraiser. Since that time, his involvement continues to grow and his knowledge continually expands. Steve leads the Pygmy Owl study and has been instrumental in documenting several new discoveries about their behavior.
Communications & Development
Lauren Smith joined ORI in 2021 as the Director of Communications. Her background is in ornithology, writing, and science communication. She believes that clear, accessible communication is an essential aspect of all research, and is excited to help share ORI’s research and conservation efforts with the world.
Lauren first really got into birds while banding in her advisor’s backyard as an undergraduate at Ohio Wesleyan University, where she studied Zoology and English. She earned a graduate degree in Environmental Studies with a writing focus from the University of Montana. She has worked as a field biologist and environmental educator across North America, and has spent the last few years working in the disability research field.
Reach Lauren by email:
Growing up in the rugged Texas Hill Country, Chloe Hernandez garnered a love of wild spaces through hiking and outdoor recreation.
Deciding she wanted to preserve and study wildlife for future generations, she pursued and graduated with a degree in Wildlife Biology at Texas State University. Through that experience, she found her niche with birds by volunteering on long-term songbird studies, and shortly after graduating, she got hired as a seasonal intern at ORI. She now works with ORI as a field technician.
Although the majority of Chloe's avian research experience is with songbirds, owls have always captivated her interest. Growing up, each spring she had an Eastern Screech Owl family nest in her family's backyard. Having the opportunity to watch the parents raise their young was an incredible experience and it drove her to want to grow her knowledge of owls. Chloe found ORI by researching her elusive owl neighbors and watching ORI's Explore.org cams.
Outside of the bird world, Chloe enjoys depicting the world through her landscape paintings and is always down for a long hike!
Solai Le Fay
Solai Le Fay earned her bachelor's degree from Portland State University, where she discovered her fascination with ornithology. After landing her first wildlife position by chance working with diurnal raptors and owls in Idaho, she has been driven towards the goal of continuing her professional path with raptors.
Before coming to ORI, Solai had gotten the opportunities to work with Northern Saw-whet, Flammulated, and Northern Spotted Owls. Solai looks forward to learning from the amazing researchers at ORI, developing new field skills, and working with the many species of owl present in western Montana. When she isn’t out looking for owls, Solai enjoys reading, hiking with her dog Grover, and paddleboarding.