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Montana Field Guides

Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis

Species of Concern
Native Species

Global Rank: G4
State Rank: S3B

Agency Status
PIF: 2

External Links

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Copyright by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, all rights reserved.
General Description
Ferruginous Hawks have rusty backs and shoulders, pale heads, and white tails washed with pale rust. They have a white patch at the base of the flight feathers on the upper wing surface. Their wings are brown above and white below. The rusty legs of the adult form a dark V contrasted with whitish underparts. Ferruginous Hawks usually appear very light-colored when viewed from a distance. The uncommon dark phase lacks dark tail bands and are dark brown on the body, but still have the whitish tail. The species averages 58 cm long with a 135 cm wingspan. Immature birds are brown instead of rust, and have brown streaking on the undersides.

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics
Krider's Red-tailed Hawk (B. jamaicensis) is brown, not rust, has white feathers on the legs, dark shoulder patches, and a dark band across the belly. The dark phase Ferruginous Hawk differs from the dark phase Rough-legged Hawk (B. lagopus) by the absence of dark tail bands in the former. Immature Ferruginous Hawks resemble the Great Plains form of the Red-tailed Hawk, but have larger white wing patches and lack the dark bar on the leading edge of the underwing.

Species Range
Montana Range Range Descriptions

All Ranges
(Click legend blocks to view individual ranges)

Western Hemisphere Range


Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations: 6776

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


SUMMER (Feb 16 - Dec 14)
Direct Evidence of Breeding

Indirect Evidence of Breeding

No Evidence of Breeding

WINTER (Dec 15 - Feb 15)
Regularly Observed

Not Regularly Observed


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Ferruginous Hawks breeding in Montana are entirely migratory (Bechard and Schmutz 1995). Fall migration begins in August and continues into early September. Young birds will migrate south earlier than, and independent of, adults. The latest recorded observation date for Ferruginous Hawks in eastern Montana is in October, from 3 records (Saunders 1921, Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). Most will move southeast, then south following grasslands (Schmutz and Fyfe 1987) to wintering locations in Texas and northern Mexico (Bechard and Schmutz 1995). Although historical records (Saunders 1921) indicate Ferruginous Hawks did overwinter in the state around the turn of the 19th century, it is not believed they currently do so. Birds from the western subpopulation apparently migrate into extreme western Montana from eastern Washington and Oregon, although only a handful of records exist and there are only three documented overwintering occurrences (see Distribution). Ferruginous Hawks begin arriving in southeastern Montana in mid- to late March (Wittenhagen 1992). Restani (1991) reported most returns to the Centennial Valley occurring in April and May. Most spring observations in the Montana Bird Distribution (2012) database are in April and May as well.

The habitat of Ferruginous Hawks in Montana has been studied extensively (Ensign 1983, Restani 1989, 1991, De Velice 1990, Wittenhagen 1992, Black 1992, Atkinson 1992, 1993) and described as mixed-grass prairie, shrub-grasslands, grasslands, grass-sagebrush complex, and sagebrush steppe. In southeastern Montana, Ensign (1983) reported mixed-grass prairie with black greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus) and big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) in uplands and drainages. Other shrub and tree species present in the habitat were junipers (Juniperus ssp.), cottonwoods (Populus ssp), willows (Salix spp.), and ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa). Also in southeastern Montana, Wittenhagen (1992) reported Ferruginous Hawk habitat to consist of shrub-grasslands with big sagebrush present as well as wheatgrasses. The Kevin Rim area of north-central Montana has been categorized as grasslands dominated by bluebunch and western wheatgrass, blue gramma, and other grasses (De Velice 1990). Habitat also exists for Ferruginous Hawks in the Centennial Valley in the southwestern portion of the state. Restani (1989, 1991) reported grass-sagebrush complexes on mid-elevation slopes to be where most hawks nested. These complexes included sagebrush species and rabbitbrush as overstory to wheatgrasses, needle-and-thread grass, and junegrass. Also in southwestern Montana, Atkinson (1992, 1993) described the preferred habitat as sagebrush steppe over foothill prairie or mountain mahogany. Black (1992) surveyed Ferruginous Hawk habitat in Phillips County and reported the habitat to be 69% grassland, 25% shrubland and 13% bare area.

Nest location studies have also described the habitat Ferruginous Hawks use during the breeding season. In southwestern Montana, sagebrush (Artemisia) and grasslands predominated within 100 meters of nests (Atkinson 1992). Ground nests in northern Montana were located in grass-dominated, rolling (more than 10 percent slope) rangeland. In cultivated areas (20 percent) in north-central Montana, nests closer to cultivated fields and roads were more successful, presumably because of higher prey densities associated with edge habitats (Zelenak et al. 1997). Nests in southwestern Montana were significantly oriented toward the south (Atkinson 1992). Nests on rock outcrops in Montana were built on slopes averaging 62.8 percent and were found on the upper 35 percent of the slope (Atkinson 1992). Ground nests in northern Montana were located either on the top of a small rise or on slopes ranging from 10 to 50 percent (Black 1992). The average height of ground nests below the highest surrounding topographic feature was 10 meters, whereas the average height of ground nest sites above the valley floor was 10.4 meters, indicating that nests were placed at mid-elevation sites within the immediate topography (Black 1992).

Ferruginous Hawks do not appear to nest in areas converted to agriculture (Schmutz 1984, Jasikoff 1982). A study done in Petroleum and Fergus counties seems to support this statement. Rogers and Rogers (1995) reported direct observations of Ferruginous Hawks avoiding crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum) fields as nesting locations. They concluded few prey resources in such monotypic croplands as the reason for not nesting in these habitats.

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
In southeastern Montana White-tailed Jack Rabbits represent the greatest frequency (24.4%) and biomass of prey items, followed by Western Meadowlarks (18.3%), Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels (12.7%), and Northern Pocket Gophers (11.7%) (Ensign 1983). In southwestern Montana (Restani 1991, Atkinson 1992) ground squirrels (S. armatus or S. elegans) were the most frequent food item (45 to 62%); other items greater than 10% included passerines, grasshoppers, and voles. Some studies in other areas of the species' range focused on vulnerability of prey. It is an important factor in habitat suitability, such that Ferruginous Hawks avoid dense vegetation that reduces their ability to see prey (Howard and Wolfe 1976, Wakeley 1978, Schmutz 1987). Prey vulnerability decreases where taller small-grain crops replace shorter grasses (Houston and Bechard 1984). Intensive agricultural practices, such as annual plowing and biennial fallowing, exclude many prey species (Wakeley 1978, Houston and Bechard 1984). In Alberta, prey abundance increases as the area of cultivation increases up to 30 percent, but abundance is reduced where agriculture is extensive, e.g., more than 30 percent (Schmutz 1989).

In southeastern Montana, predation and sibling fratricide were the major causes of nestling mortality, accounting for 34 and 27%, respectively, of total progeny loss (Ensign 1983). Territories often contain alternate nests (Atkinson 1992). Distribution appears clumped, with large areas of apparently suitable habitat unoccupied (Atkinson 1992). Ecological information relating to home ranges of Ferruginous Hawks comes from studies throughout the west including Washington, Utah, and Idaho. Density varies with cycles of prey abundance and home ranges average between 3.14 km to 90.3 km.

Reproductive Characteristics
Most reproduction studies in Montana have been done in four areas in the state: the southeastern, the southwestern, the Kevin Rim area in north-central Montana, and Phillips County. Ferruginous Hawks arrive in Montana in mid- to late March (Wittenhagen 1992). Ensign (1983) reported hawks already present when the field season began in early April. Wittenhagen (1992) recorded eggs being laid in mid-April. Ensign (1983) mentions eggs present by the third week of April in 1981 and the end of April in 1982. The average clutch size for Ferruginous Hawk nests in Montana ranges between 2.57 and 3.37 (Ensign 1983, Wittenhagen 1992). Ferruginous Hawk eggs hatch in late May (Wittenhagen 1992) and the first week of June (Ensign 1983). Fledging occurred in late June to mid-July and juvenile birds were observed into late August (Ensign 1983, Wittenhagen 1992). The average number of young fledged from four studies in the state ranges from 1.07 to 3.50 (Ensign 1983, Meyers 1987, Restani 1989, Wittenhagen 1992), with higher fledging success in the southwestern part of the state; more tree nesting and therefore fewer ground predators (Wittenhagen 1992). Once young birds have fledged, they have low mortality rates. Zelenak et al. (1997), working in the Kevin Rim region, reported an 86% percent survival rate of juvenile birds from fledging to 60 days later. No evidence exists for year-old birds breeding, but 2 year-olds do regularly (Bechard and Schmutz 1995).

The Kevin Rim area in north-central Montana supports a very dense population of breeding Ferruginous Hawks. DuBois (1988) reported 24 breeding pairs in an area of 23.5 square km, which translates to almost 60 pairs per 100 square mile. Black (1992) reports a likely population of 260 individuals in Phillips County, based on the number of hawk observations over a certain survey size. Meyers (1987), working in the Dillon area in southwestern Montana, documented one the densest Ferruginous Hawk populations in the state with 58 (1985) and 69 (1986) occupied territories in only 417 square miles.

In 1991, the Ferruginous Hawk was petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act (Ure et al. 1991). This petition was rejected due to insufficient data to warrant listing (USFWS 1992). Ferruginous Hawks are not currently federally listed as a candidate or proposed species. The BLM in Montana identifies them as a sensitive species. Although no active management is currently in place for Ferruginous Hawks in Montana, other management plans do take this species into account. For example, Black-tailed Prairie Dog towns in the Judith-Valley-Phillips Resource Management Area are currently managed to help provide habitat for Ferruginous Hawks (Grensten 2002) as they use the dog towns for food and shelter. Ferruginous Hawks seem to accept and readily use artificial nest structures when placed in areas where populations have declined or where habitats lack suitable nest sites (Olendorff 1993). This practice would likely benefit Ferruginous Hawks in eastern Montana where nesting is primarily on the ground and nest structures would reduce predation (Wittenhagen 1992).

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Atkinson, E. C. 1993. Ferruginous hawk monitoring on the Dillon Resource Area of southwest Montana: 1993. Unpublished Report. Bureau of Land Management, Dillon, MT.
    • Atkinson, E.C. 1992. Ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis) inventories on the Dillon Resource Area of southwest Montana: 1992. Montana Natural Heritage Program for Bureau of Land Management, Dillon Resource Area. 34 pp.
    • Bechard, M. J. and J. K. Schmutz. 1995. Ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis). In: A. Poole and F. Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Number 172. The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C. 20 pp.
    • Black, A. 1992. Ferruginous hawk reproduction and habitat survey. Unpublished report. Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, Jackson, WY. 13 pp.
    • De Velice, R. L. 1990. Grassland and shrubland communities on United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management lands in Montana: a proposal. Montana Natural Heritage Program, Helena, MT. 21 pp.
    • Dubois, K. 1988. Kevin Rim/Sweetgrass Hills raptor survey. Bureau of Land Management. 8 p. plus data appendices.
    • Ensign, J.T. 1983. Nest site selection, productivity, and food habits of ferruginous hawks in southeastern Montana. M.Sc. Thesis. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University. 85 p.
    • Grensten, J. 2002. Black-footed ferret and prairie dog management.
    • Houston, C. S. and M. J. Bechard. 1984. Decline of the ferruginous hawk in Saskatchewan. American Birds 38:166-170.
    • Howard, R. P. and M. L. Wolfe. 1976. Range improvement practices and ferruginous hawks. Journal of Range Management 29(1):33-37.
    • Jasikoff, T.M. 1982. Habitat suitability index models: ferruginous hawk. U.S.D.I. Fish and Wildlife Service FSW/OBS-82/10.10. 18 pp.
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Myers, L.H. 1987. Nesting ecology of ferruginous hawks in Southwestern Montana. Paper presented at the Montana Nongame Symposium, Kalispell, MT. Feb. 11, 1987. 14 pp.
    • Olendorff, R. R. 1993. Status, biology, and management of ferruginous hawks: a review. Raptor Research and Technical Assistance Center, Special Report U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Boise, ID. 84 pp.
    • Restani, M. 1989. Resource partitioning among three species of hawks in the Centennial Valley, Montana. M.Sc. Thesis. Bozeman, Mt: Montana State University. 86 p.
    • Restani, M. 1991. Resource partitioning among three Buteo species in the Centennial Valley, Montana. Condor 93:1007-1010.
    • Rogers, R. and A. Rogers. 1995. Project report: a survey of nesting ferruginous hawks (Buteo regalis) on public lands in Petroleum and Fergus counties, Montana. Unpublished report to USDI Bureau of Land Management, Judith Resource Area, Lewistown, MT.
    • Saunders, A.A. 1921. A distributional list of the birds of Montana: With notes on the migration and nesting of the better known species. Pacific Coast Avifauna No. 14. pp. 38-39, 118-119.
    • Schmutz, J. K. 1984. Ferruginous and Swainson's hawk abundance and distribution in relation to land use in southeastern Alberta. Journal of Wildlife Management 48:1180-1187.
    • Schmutz, J. K. 1987. The effect of agriculture on ferruginous and Swainson's hawks. Journal of Range Management 40(5):438-440.
    • Schmutz, J. K. 1989. Hawk occupancy of disturbed grasslands in relation to models of habitat selection. Condor 91:362-371.
    • Schmutz, J. K. and R. W. Fyfe. 1987. Migration and mortality of Alberta ferruginous hawks. Condor 89:169-174.
    • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1992. Endangered and threatened wildlife and plants. Notice of finding on petition to list the Ferruginous Hawk. Federal Register 57(161):37507-37513.
    • Ure, J., P. Briggs, and S.W. Hoffman. 1991. Petition to list as endangered the ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis), as provide by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended in 1982. Ferruginous Hawk Project, Salt Lake City, UT. 9 pp.
    • Wakeley, J.S. 1978. Factors affecting the use of hunting sites by ferruginous hawks. Condor: 80:316-326.
    • Wittenhagen, K.W. 1992. 1992 final report on the ferruginous hawk in southeastern Montana. Unpublished Report. Miles City, MT: U.S. Bureau of Land Management. 31 p.
    • Zelenak, J.R., J.J. Rotella, and A.R. Harmata. 1997. Survival of fledgling ferruginous hawks in northern Montana. Canadian Journal of Zoology 75:152-156.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • Allen, G. T. 1979. An assessment of potential conflicts between nesting raptors and human activities in the Long Pines area of southeastern Montana with special emphasis on uranium development. M.S. thesis, Washington State University, Pullman. 109 pp.
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    • Andersen, D.E., O.J. Rongstad, and W.R. Mytton. 1990. Home-range changes in raptors exposed to increased human activity levels in southeastern Colorado. Wildlife Society Bulletin 18:134-142.
    • Atkinson, E.C. 1995. Survey and monitoring guidelines for ferruginous hawks in Montana. Bureau of Land Management and Montana Dept. Fish, Wildlife and Parks. 42 p.
    • Beak Consultants, Inc. 1983. Circle West wildlife studies, Meridian Exchange study area, McCone County, Montana. Progress report no. 3/4 to the Meridian Land & Mineral Company. 21 p.
    • Bechard, M. J. 1981. Historical nest records of the ferruginous hawk in Manitoba. Can. Field-Nat. 95: 467-469.
    • Bechard, M. J., and J. K. Schmutz. 1995. Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis). In The birds of North America, No. 172 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and American Ornithologists’ Union.
    • Bechard, M.J., D.H. Keleigh, and D.H. Porter. 1986. Historical and current distributions of Swainson's and ferruginous hawks in southern Idaho. Boise, ID: Boise State University, prepared for ID Dept. of Fish and Game and USDI BLM. 58 p.
    • Bechard, M.J., R.L. Knight, D.G. Smith, and R.E. Fitzner. 1990. Nest sites and habitats of sympatric hawks (Buteo spp.) in Washington. Journal of Field Ornithology 61:159-170.
    • Becker, D.M. 1977. A survey of breeding raptors on and adjacent to Custer National Forest lands in Carter County, Montana. Unpublished report including 1978 progress report. 107 p.
    • Becker, Dale M., 1980, A Survey of raptors on national forest land in Carter County, Montana. Final Progress Report: 1977-1979.
    • Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. 2017. Pocket Guide to Northern Prairie Birds. Brighton, CO: Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. 98 p.
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    • Blair, C.L. 1978. Breeding biology and prey selection of Ferruginous Hawks in northwestern South Dakota. M.S. thesis. South Dakota State University, Brookings, SD. 60 pp.
    • Blair, C.L., and F. Schitoskey Jr. 1982. Breeding biology and diet of the Ferruginous Hawk in South Dakota. Wilson Bulletin 94:46-54.
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    • ECON, Inc. (Ecological Consulting Service), Helena, MT., 1979, Annual wildllife report of the Colstrip Area for 1978. Proj. 195-85-A. April 6, 1979.
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    • Econ, Inc., Helena, MT., 1991, Wildlife monitoring report: 1989 field season, Big Sky Mine. March 1991.
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    • Fink, D., K.V. Rosenberg, F.A. La Sorte, M.J. Iliff, C. Wood, and S. Kelling. 2013. Species distribution modeling of priority bird species on Bureau of Land Management lands to determine stewardship responsibility for conservation planning. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 224 p.
    • Fitzner, R.E., D. Berry, L.L. Boyd, and C.A. Reick. 1977. Nesting of Ferruginous Hawks (Buteo regalis) in Washington, 1974-75. Condor 79:245-249.
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    • Friedmann, H. 1963. Host relations of the parasitic cowbirds. United States National Museum Bulletin No. 233.
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    • Gniadek, S. 1983. Southwest Glendive Wildlife Baseline Inventory. Miles City, Mont: Bureau of Land Management, Miles City District Office. 56 pp with appendices.
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    • Graham, Dean, and Craig Swick., 1977, A Field evaluation of the cyclone seeder for reducing Richardson ground squirrel populations causing damage in central Montana . August 1977.
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    • Hall, R. S., et al. 1988. Ferruginous hawk. Pages 111-118 in Glinski et al., eds. Proc. Southwest Raptor Manage. Symp. and Workshop. Nat. Wildl. Fed. Sci. and Tech. Ser. No. 11.
    • Harmata, A. and R. Jaffe. 2001. Population dynamics of key raptor species in the Kevin Rim Raptor Study Area, 2001. Challenge cost share progress report to: Bureau of Land Management Great Falls District. Bozeman, MT: MT State University, Dept. of Ecology, Fish and Wildlife Program.
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    • Harmata, A.R. 1991. Impacts of oil and gas development on raptors associated with Kevin Rim, Montana. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University. Unpublished report by the Kevin Rim Raptor Study Group. Prepared for the USDI BLM, Great Falls Resource Area, Great Falls, MT. 106 p.
    • Harmata, Al and Jaffe, Rose. 2003. Success and productivity of key raptor species nesting in the Kevin Rim Raptor Study Area, 2002-2003. Challenge Cost Share Progress report to BLM Great Falls District.
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