by Darcy Thomas

Kathy Ross teaches at Wild Wings

At times our childhood experiences make us who we are. That is certainly the case with Kathy Ross. “As a kid I roamed the forests of Missouri, sometimes with Grandfather, but mostly alone, exploring ponds for salamanders, frogs, and bugs, tracking small woodland beings around the forests, learning the names of all the wild beings, both flora and fauna that I encountered. And, then it was gone…all that magical world bulldozed away. Little did I know at the time how that would inspire my adult life. Those wild beings live in me and thru me and they are worth keeping with us on the planet. So how better to do that than by sharing what I have learned along the way from the forest, fauna, and human mentors along the way.”

A Midwest transplant dating back to the 1970’s, Kathy lived in Colorado, California, and Sun Valley before making her way to her permanent home in the Flathead. During her time in Sun Valley, she ran a flower shop/garden center where she encouraged the use of native plants. She was also a Hospice volunteer and taught nursing home residents to make their own flower arrangements with donated flowers. She continued with a similar program in Bigfork.

Moving to the Flathead in 1991, Kathy fell in love with the forest flora of the area. “It is so different and unique from anywhere else I had lived in the western states,” she says. “The forests and mountains were a treasure of new discoveries for me.” Kathy was working full-time in a local greenhouse and within a year started her own business as a landscaper/gardener working in, around, and with native plant communities – “enhancing with ornamentals”. Kathy encouraged clients to keep the native landscape as much as possible as well as finding alternatives to the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. “My wonderful, caring clients of 28 years on Flathead Lake indulged me in this endeavor which I am eternally grateful for. Knowing that many invasive species started in someone’s garden, I removed most ornamental plants that might become invasive from the garden. I worked full-time and long hours in what became a “botanical garden” amidst a native setting and was able to watch the changes that took place with the native landscape, birds, insects, and water quality of Flathead Lake”. She also wrote a book about the years of changes and research on this beautiful seven acres on the lakeshore.

But all she really wanted to do was be a volunteer.

So, while working full-time, Kathy began volunteering with the Forest Service in Jewel Basin doing 

campground clean-up, inventories and helping hikers. She volunteered for Abbey Shelter doing nature education with the children staying at the home.

Also, she wanted to surround herself with like-minded conservationists and naturalists by volunteering with organizations she respected. This opened a world of mentors for Kathy. Meeting so many incredible volunteers, like Leslie Kehoe who led the first field trip Kathy went on that hooked her by the experience, Linda DeKort, Linda Winnie and Kay Mitchell (just to name a few) encouraged her to join Flathead Audubon and become a board member which she did for over ten years. She participated in Christmas bird counts locally and at Ninepipes for 20 years. She was on the Field Trip committee for many years, led field trips, worked on the Education Committee for three years, participated in Road Scholar at Glacier National Park with three FAS Conservation Educators, mentored 6th graders at Somers School for four years with the Backyard Bird count, volunteered with Jewel Basin Hawk Watch for 11 years and also recruited and trained other volunteers to be raptor observers, assisted with Earth Days, Forestry Expo and Birds of Prey Festival. Her articles for the 2020 post “Birds Need Our Help” became the basis for the “Helping Birds” section on the FAS website which she has authored articles for including an article on using native plants for landscaping called “Birds, Bugs, Berries, and Beds for the Chicks.

Other projects Kathy is involved with include a cooperative effort with Flathead Audubon and MT Native Plant Society and FWP. She will be giving talks and leading field trips at Wayfarer’s Park this spring. Kathy is also currently working with FAS Conservation Educator Denny Olson on an educational video about using native plants to help birds.

While doing all this amazing work, Kathy found time to help Gael Bissell with spring waterfowl surveys for 2-3 years, volunteer with a Wolf Biologist in Glacier National Park for two years, as well as participate in Citizen Science projects in the Glacier Park with the nursery and doing Common Loon and Mountain Goat surveys. The Citizen Science work was on-going for over 18 years. Kathy started a side project at Flathead Lake State Park-Wayfarer’s Unit doing weed monitoring and pulling noxious weeds for the last five years.

Montana Wild Wings Recovery Center has enjoyed the volunteer efforts of Kathy for almost three years. She works directly with the birds and education program educating young and old on how to protect the birds and their habitats. “The raptors teach us, and everyone who meets them,” says Kathy. “We humans are there just there as caregivers and facilitators.”

Kathy’s dedicated advocacy for native plants, insects, birds, and other earth inhabitants and for many conservation efforts is admirable and worthy of emulating. She has been a consistent voice helping people understand the crucial connection between native landscaping/gardening and bird conservation by giving talks on the subject for the last six years. Her hands-on experience and pursuit of new research being done by academies in these fields (as well as most bird conservancy groups) give her reason enough to share the conversation with others. “Folks who care about conservation, birds, insects, and biodiversity want to do the right thing. If those of us that really care do not make the extra effort, who will? But first it is important to educate ourselves on the most productive, science based/experienced based way to accomplish our goals and share the information with others. Every single native plant planted can make a difference to insects that specialize on that plant and the birds whose survival depends on the insects, berries, and seeds they produce”. Make a difference, one plant at a time, or save an entire native landscape whenever possible. As Audubon says, “Be a Habitat Hero” for the birds!