The story of the year, of course, was COVID-19. From the March announcement of the state’s first positive tests to the December arrival of the state’s first batch of vaccines, the coronavirus inserted itself into pretty much every aspect of life in Montana. Tourism took a hit, even as out-of-staters flocked to Montana for a respite from pandemic hotspots. Industries from oil to agriculture to media felt the pandemic ground shifting their foundations. When the state went into stay-at-home mode, business closures tossed thousands of Montanans onto the unemployment rolls. It wasn’t long before a vocal minority of citizens began chafing under the strain, questioning the state’s restrictions in an increasingly politicized atmosphere that continues to show few signs of finding consensus.

Montana Free Press covered COVID-19 outbreaks, the state’s struggles to keep up with the fast-moving virus, and the pandemic’s impacts on everything from renters to real estate to rural hospitals. We enlisted reporters statewide to paint the developing COVID scene from Butte to Havre to Billings to Cooke City to Kalispell

Wherever we went, we found the crisis landing heavily on vulnerable populations, and we tracked the impacts on food security, at-risk kids, their parents, prison populations, and people trying to make their way in an unprecedented new world without so much as a home to shelter in.  

And then there was the all-consuming public health response, from testing challenges to  contact tracing to Montana’s role in vaccine development

The crisis also put a weighty burden on the very people tasked with helping Montanans navigate it, pinching public health workers between a sometimes suspicious public and occasionally uncooperative elected officials.    

But neither 2020 nor COVID-19 was all problems. This summer MTFP partnered with the Solutions Journalism Network to produce a series of reports on community responses to COVID-19 that delivered deep dives about systemic innovations in Missoula’s music scene, local food systems, early education, community health, mental well-being, wildland firefighting, local business, and even childbirth.

Still, the year’s news wasn’t all COVID, even if it sometimes seemed like it was. 

The summer brought responses to racial injustice home to roost around the state, and MTFP followed organizers as they navigated oppression and opposition in Uphill, a two-part podcast about Black Lives Matter in Montana. 

Community members gather in support of the National Day of Action for Black Lives at the Bozeman for United Racial Justice rally, Friday, June 5, 2020, at Bogert Park in Bozeman. Credit: Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

And of course 2020 was an election year of consequence, and while COVID changed how candidates campaigned and how voters voted, the show went on, as it must. The main events were term-limited Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s failed attempt to unseat Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte’s successful second attempt to gain the governor’s office, but under the long shadow of President Donald Trump, down-ballot races offered some stark contrasts as well, especially in the contests for U.S. representative, superintendent of public instruction, and attorney general. Not to mention one easily overlooked initiative-invoked ban — and one closely watched initiative-invoked de-prohibition — that became law by the will of the electorate. 

Along the way, MTFP tried something new, partnering with Yellowstone Public Radio and Montana Public Radio to produce a 10-episode election-season podcast called Shared State that looked at key races and issues through the lens of that roadworn campaign phrase, “Montana values,” and its foundations in Montana’s Constitution. 

In the end, all statewide offices went Republican, delivering a unified statehouse for the first time in decades and upending a long-standing dynamic between the state executive and the Legislature.

It remains to be seen how another long-standing dynamic — that between uneasy factions within the Legislature’s Republican caucus — might play out over the course of the 67th session. And, to close the loop, it remains to be seen as well how the session itself will play out in the face of a continuing pandemic.

2020 was also the year of the U.S. census, and as with everything this year, the process was buffeted by the coronavirus, with potentially profound consequences

But if the whole world wasn’t consumed by COVID, neither was it consumed by politics. 

We kept an eye on the world outside this year with reporting on environmental news dominated by legal conflict. Regardless of Bullock’s support, construction of the Keystone XL pipeline continued to face new hurdles from courts and tribes both. After the DEQ approved the Black Butte copper mine, environmental groups sued to block it. After environmental groups sued, the Wildlife Services division of the Department of Agriculture agreed to cut back on killing wildlife. Lynx were the subject of an Endangered Species Act lawsuit in December, and a federal decision that wolverines aren’t threatened was challenged just weeks later. Whitebark pine, meanwhile, were given a ticket to the endangered list, and the state Supreme Court blocked a gold mine in the Paradise Valley. 

But the most impactful environmental lawsuit of the year was doubtless Gov. Bullock’s takedown of acting BLM director William Pendley — a shake-up with potentially widespread implications for land management in the West, where political maneuvering around public lands is likely to continue well into the new year under a new administration.

Along the way, chronic wasting disease continued to establish new footholds and a “new reality” across the state, the American Prairie Reserve continued to generate innovations and controversy, and a panel created by Bullock released a Climate Solutions Plan calling for the state to reach net-zero carbon emissions economy-wide by 2050

Yurts at Kestrel Camp on the American Prairie Reserve. Credit: Gib Myers / American Prairie Reserve

And finally, a collision of environmental, economic and political issues played through to its long-awaited conclusion in the CSKT water compact, which began the year facing opposition from a small contingent of hardline Republicans, and exited 2020 with congressional approval via a must-pass appropriations bill and, eventually, ratification by the tribes, bringing years of negotiation and conflict to a close. 

These were hardly the only stories worth reading in 2020 — MTFP published some 400 stories this calendar year, as we expanded our editorial staff with new reporters Chris Aadland and Mara Silver — but it’s a sample worth remembering as a first draft, at least, of history constantly in the making. We’ll be revisiting many of these issues in 2021, as we expand our staff again, starting Monday, with the additions of full-time staff reporters Amanda Eggert and Alex Sakariassen on the environmental and education beats, respectively. 

And then, of course, there will be the new year’s new news — the stories no one saw coming, and the stories we’ll be ready, thanks to the continuing support of readers, to report thoroughly, fairly, and accurately. That’s what we’re most looking forward to in the coming year. We’ll see you then.

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Brad Tyer manages the MTFP newsroom and coordinates freelance reporters, special projects and collaborations. He edited the Missoula Independent from 2002 to 2007 and 2016 to 2018. He's also done two stints as managing editor of the Texas Observer in Austin, and has freelanced widely. Contact Brad at btyer@montanafreepress.org or 406-465-3386 ext. 1.