Q & A with Denver Holt

Denver Holt on the Snowy Owl project in 2000. © Daniel J Cox/NaturalExposures.com

This is an interview from 2017 that I thought I'd refresh. :)

When it comes to documenting change in the natural world, Denver Holt has some data to fall back on. He has studied owls in the wild for over 30 years and is one of world’s leading experts. The founder and lead researcher of the Owl Research Institute (ORI) answers questions about the research and conservation.

You’ve been studying owls for a very long time. Does the research ever get monotonous?

Not at all, things constantly change. Look at it this way. Its August. I know the arctic shorebirds are migrating, so the past couple days I’ve been going out early and trying to find some mud to see if they are coming through. I don't force myself to do it - I just want to – it’s all timing. There’s not much going on with owls right now, so I’m looking at other things. It’s all important.

I make a note when I start to see skunk road-kills in the spring; when I see the first Buttercup of the season, changes in weather. And I record honestly. If I’m not sure about what I saw, I write that. The Montana State Natural Heritage program recently archived my 30 years of field journals. Several people commented on the honesty/integrity of my notes. You have to be honest to yourself, and with data. I’ll never stop researching.

How has the mission and vision of the ORI expanded since the early days?

It’s expanded because I’m really getting to be a decent mechanic! I can finally work on most of this field equipment myself [Laughs].

The mission is still to produce reliable data through long-term research. We started out that way and it’s still what we’re about. More and more each year, I see the importance of this as the data takes shape.

In terms of conservation, it’s definitely bigger. With the longitudinal studies, you gather information that is pertinent to conservation. Especially when you see declines and habitat changes. But advocating for it is a different story. I see myself speaking more and more as an advocate for conservation, using the owl as the medium. I want to get the word out to the public - not just at professional meetings.

What does the ORI’s research aim to reveal?

What is really happening with populations. That is thee question. That’s what long-term research is always trying to get at. All other questions are secondary: how many eggs did they lay, what are the growth rates, what does the DNA reveal, etc.? Those are interesting questions, but they don't tell you how a population is doing over time.

Long-term monitoring is the key, and for as long as you can. Although then you ask yourself: when I have 30 years’ worth of data, is it enough to say for sure where a species is headed? I’m unsure of the answer.

Will we see an end to the Alaska Snowy Owls? It almost looks that way; tha