By David Cronenwett
The inevitable greening of the prairie in Montana now, warms the heart of this naturalist. Long-billed curlews, godwits and other species intimately tied to our grasslands have returned. One of these, the Ferruginous Hawk, (Buteo regalis) is a relatively unusual sight even when one knows where to look for them. This magnificent bird is the largest member of the genus Buteo and a cousin to Red Tailed and Rough-legged hawks. Like its relatives, there is a significant amount of variation in plumage from individual to individual. However, a “classic” bird will be covered with the rusty iron-like feathers for which they are named and the most striking will have a brilliant white breast usually flecked with this “rust”. Feathers cover the legs all the way to the feet, which under certain circumstances, can be a useful identifying feature.
Ferruginous Hawks prey on mammals as large as White-tailed Jackrabbits but ground squirrels are likely more common. One source claims that in parts of Montana, Western Meadowlarks make up a significant part of the raptor’s diet. The raptors winter in the American Southwest and into Mexico. The species is listed as Endangered in Alberta and as a Species of Concern in Montana. Conservationists attempted to have the raptor listed on the US Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species Act in 1991, but it was deemed unwarranted by the agency. Throughout their range however, Ferruginous Hawks are frequently cited as a sensitive or declining species, like many other grassland birds, generally because of habitat loss. It is important to understand that Ferruginous Hawks are closely associated with native grasslands, a type of living system that has given so much to humankind but since the dawn of agriculture thirteen thousand years ago, has largely suffered at our hands. In the past, Buteo regalis was known to make huge nests of buffalo wool and bones, and we know what happened to the American Bison.
Grasslands were always ideal places to grow grain, construct homes and build civilizations. Prairie will likely never hold the same place in the hearts of people as mountains do, but they should. The birder, botanist, and lovers of wildlife and space can appreciate its beauty. There is nothing hidden here and it is this exposed, uncluttered nature that is really destabilizing to some. In a way, grasslands, where sky and earth meet, are simply too raw and elemental for most people to hold close with any affection.
Literature suggests that only between 1 and 5 percent of all native, undisturbed grasslands remain in North America. Some of the best surviving habitat in the continental United States exists here, in Montana. Conversion of prairie to agricultural use is still a significant and detrimental practice from the perspective of ecology. Lately, energy development off all kinds poses great threats to these remnant ecosystems.
I was in Choteau recently, fueling my gas guzzling truck and watching a growing number of out-of-area oil company rigs cruise through town. I tell myself that I can’t be summarily against petroleum development. But so much has been invested in the Rocky Mountain Front to conserve its unique character and ecology that it seems to me a complete and lasting tragedy may be in the offing. Considering how new technology has enabled shale bed extraction to occur nearly anywhere and given the transformative oil boom in the other side of the state, it appears as though we are on the verge of something potentially momentous: I fear we are becoming an energy colony, and there is little we can do about it.
Overhead, a raptor circles low and it looks like a Ferruginous Hawk. At the moment, it appears to me an ambassador for the numerous creatures that won’t survive without native prairies. I list the many threats to this place in my head; subdivisions, wind and oil development, invasive plant species ,and our natural tendency to disregard the prairie as a place of ecological value and beauty. That this landscape has been identified as one that can produce oil via hydraulic fracturing in a meaningful way, does not bode well from a conservation perspective. If you are a person who loves the Front, its flora and peace and birds of prey, you might want to get up here and get a good look at it. Sooner is better.