Kate Stone of Stevensville was recently selected to receive the Biologist of the Year Award by the Montana Chapter of the Wildlife Society. Awards are given annually in recognition of Montana wildlife professionals who exemplify remarkable professional contributions to wildlife science and/or conservation. Co-workers, supervisees, supervisors, and other professional or public associates of a candidate may sponsor award submissions.
Stone said her initial reaction was one of surprise. Upon reading the letters of nomination it made her feel honored. She said that having the nominations come from her colleagues and from members of the public that she works with meant a lot.
Stone got her undergraduate degree at Middlebury College in Vermont but came out to Montana to get an M.A. in Forestry at the University of Montana. She worked on Snowshoe Hares and other forestry-related projects at the time. After graduation she took a job in eastern Montana doing bird counts and living out of her car.
“I loved the work,” said Stone. She bounced back and forth for a while between field work and some writing jobs at the Rocky Mountain Fire Research station in Missoula. Then, in 2010, after two terms at the research center, she went to work for MPG Ranch in the Bitterroot. The MPG Ranch is a private ranch in the Eight Mile area east of Florence that has been converted into a laboratory focused on environmental restoration.
Stone directs the avian science team at the ranch. She and her team pursue their own lines of research and implement their own projects. But she also evaluates other people’s proposals, helps them implement the projects and evaluates the results. Stone’s first thing she did on the ranch was to help in the research and restoration projects of all sorts that were being conducted by implementing methods of surveying birds to use them as a response variable to restoration treatments.
She called that work “a long term game” and said “restoration doesn’t happen overnight in plant communities and soil doesn’t change overnight.”
“So it’s exciting that we are reaching the point now, ten years into the study, where we are really seeing some changes in the bird community over time.” She said birds have specific needs for things like food and nesting. A catbird, for instance, needs shrubs to nest in.
“If you don’t have shrubs, then you don’t have catbirds,” said Stone. “When you see them come in and nest and successfully produce young that tells you something – at least the landscape is at a point that it can support catbirds.”
She said they were seeing, in their experimental areas, a lot of the species where some of the diversity is increasing and more indicator songbirds are starting to show up and hang around.
At the same time, however, certain species seem to be in decline. But it is hard to say why, because so many of them are migrating species who only spend a portion of their time here.
Night Hawk populations are declining everywhere, she said. “But is that a problem here? Or on their wintering ground?” She said scientists are having to collaborate more than ever in what is being called “full annual cycle research” to get the real picture on many species.
Since their research started, they have seen Montana Night Hawks showing up in Columbia, South America. “That’s wild and amazing,” she said.
Not only do she and her team collaborate with other scientists around the world, they are also collaborating more than ever with the local public.
Through her work at the ranch and as an active Audubon member, and as a member of the Ravalli County Open Lands Board, she has encountered many people who are wanting to help.
“They are hungry to learn and are hungry to help and they have private property that they are curious about,” said Stone. “So now we have private landowners all through the valley hosting a camera station or an audio monitoring station or a carcass station. And we get good information.”
Stone has a carcass station right outside her house near Stevensville. The deer carcass was placed there in a cooperative effort with the local Raptor Research Institute. The institute is luring golden eagles in to capture them and place radio transmitters on them for monitoring purposes.
“I love living in the Bitterroot,” said Stone. “It’s amazing to be able to do research out your bedroom window.”
About 30 carcass observation sites have been set up throughout the valley.
Stone said public education was a key element in addressing the decline of bird species.
“If people learn that a certain species of bird is in decline and that some can be found on their place,” said Stone, “they usually want to do the right thing for the bird.”
Michael Howell can be contacted at [email protected] or (406)239-4838.