POLSON – Denver Holt arrived as the featured speaker at the Greater Polson Community Foundation event in mid-March with a topic at hand, and a title for his lecture.

“Ecotourism and the Unique Opportunities in the Mission Valley,” it was called.

Within 60 seconds he had tossed it out in favor of a slideshow and lecture on snowy owls.

Give ’em what they want, Holt figured.

For three months, snowy owls have been just about all anyone has wanted Holt, director of the Owl Research Institute in Charlo, to talk about.

Which was the whole point of his discarded ecotourism lecture to begin with. People are interested. They’ll come. They’ll spend money while they’re here.

Up to 25 of the large, magnificent birds congregated in the Mission Valley this winter. The visitors from the Arctic lured more visitors – the human kind – not only from Montana, but from approximately 25 other states, at a time of year when you’d normally swear the closest tourist was in Hawaii.

Everyone from serious birdwatchers, to Harry Potter fans (the popular fictional character kept one as a pet), to the merely curious was drawn to the Polson area this winter by the snowy owls.

***

The irruption – a dramatic, irregular migration of a large number of birds to areas where they aren’t normally found – wasn’t confined to Polson.

Snowy owls showed up across the United States, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, in what Holt calls “the biggest wildlife viewing event in this country in decades.”

The Mission Valley was perfectly positioned to cash in on the local interest.

But tourists who could have found snowy owls closer to home came to Montana, in the dead of winter (and minus skis and snowboards), from South Carolina, Texas, Washington, New Mexico and more.

“It’s been the craziest January and February I’ve ever seen,” says Mary Edelman, restaurant manager at Ninepipes Lodge south of Ronan. “Our February was better than our October, which never happens. We’re lucky if we book a room a week for overnight guests in February and January, but we had 12 to 15 rooms booked every weekend this year.”

Two things helped.

For one, most of the blizzard of birds conveniently parked themselves on rooftops, chimneys and fence posts smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood on the southern edge of Polson. The big white owls with the 5-foot wingspans were easy to find.

Perhaps more importantly, though he won’t admit to it, one of the world’s leading experts in snowy owls is parked right here in the valley at the Owl Research Institute.

Holt has spent years traveling to the Arctic in the summertime to study the birds in their native habitat, and when media from across the country went looking for someone to explain the appearance of snowy owls across the United States this winter, Holt was often the person they turned to.

He was able to not only answer their questions, but note that lots of the snowy owls had shown up here, too.

“I really don’t want to take credit for it,” Holt says. “The truth is the Mission Valley has one of the highest numbers of wintering birds of prey in the Northwest.”

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And that’s one of the points Holt wanted to make about the potential of ecotourism right here in the valley.

The area, perhaps naturally, aims most of its promotional efforts around the summer months, Flathead Lake, the Mission Mountains and more mainstream tourist activities.

But Holt points to a 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report – the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation – that says wildlife watching was a $45.7 billion-a-year industry in the United States.

That’s more than fishing ($42 billion) or hunting ($22.9 billion).

Furthermore, the report estimates that more than 71 million Americans take part in wildlife watching activities, compared with 30 million who fish or 12.5 million who hunt.

The majority of wildlife watchers, Holt says, are birdwatchers.

“Waterfowl is No. 1, and birds of prey are No. 2,” he says. “It’s an interesting demographic. The average age of birders is 50, and their average salary is more than $75,000. They typically have a higher income and education.”

Those 71.1 million wildlife watchers, Holt says, “is four times more than NFL attendance, but it’s like no one even knows about it.”

***

Holt does, of course.

A longtime part-time guide for Texas-based Victor Emanuel Nature Tours – he led a Montana snowy owl tour for the Texas-based firm in February – Holt and Megan Fylling have started Wild Planet Nature Tours locally.

Of the half-dozen tours on its website currently taking registrants, three are for trips to Alaska, Mexico and Guatemala.

The other three are in Montana.

Holt suggests those who rely on, and promote, tourism, should consider using some resources to attracting more wildlife watchers.

It’s not just the snowy owls.

The area teems with raptors, including golden and bald eagles, peregrine and prairie falcons. The Owl Research Institute is here for a reason: long-eared, short-eared, great-horned, barn, northern pygmy, northern saw-whet, western screech. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have reintroduced trumpeter swans.

The National Bison Range at Moiese has documented more than 200 species of birds that live there or drop by, from great blue herons to black-billed cuckoos.

It also has a pretty impressive list of wingless wildlife as well that starts, but certainly does not end, with bison – elk, deer, pronghorns, coyotes, black bears and more.

The Mission Valley, Holt says, need not wait for the irregular irruptions of snowy owls to capitalize on ecotourism.

***

When, or if, snowy owls return in such large numbers is anyone’s guess.

They’re likely to begin their return journey to their nesting grounds in the Arctic virtually any second.

“If we could figure out a way to keep them here, it’d be fantastic,” Heather Knutson, president of the Polson Chamber of Commerce, says with a laugh. “Our number of visitors, and calls we’ve gotten, is significantly up from last year. If anyone has any ideas on how to keep them here that are legal, let me know.”

The truth is that there’s almost always a snowy owl or two that show up in the Mission Valley in the winter. The birds usually aren’t as visible, and in such great numbers, as this year, is all.

They are an attraction like no other, Holt admits.

“No. 1, it’s because they’re owls,” he says. “Only certain groups generate so much interest – owls, penguins, whales, koala bears.”

“Snowy owls are in the top tier” of owls, he goes on. “There’s something about white animals that takes it to another level, and really fascinates people – not just birdwatchers, but doctors, lawyers, secretaries, bartenders, carpenters. It’s true with polar bears, Arctic foxes, beluga whales and white bison, too. There’s something about them – do they seem magical? Angelic? I don’t know. But people love them.”

They’ll also travel long distances to see them.

What Denver Holt started to tell that audience in mid-March is that they’ve got lots of other species people will come to look at and photograph as well. Maybe not in the numbers that the snowy owls attract.

But wildlife watching is still a multibillion-dollar industry.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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