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Greetings, and welcome to the first edition of Montana Lowdown, your weekly in-the-know newsletter from the reporting team at Montana Free Press.

The name of this newsletter might ring a bell for some. In 2009 I launched a news blog, The Lowdown, to give readers broader context and insights into the news I covered on a day-to-day basis as a statehouse reporter for the Great Falls Tribune. I wrote about things I encountered along my reporting journey I thought Montanans might find interesting, useful or just plain entertaining. For five years I published posts aimed at giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at Montana politics and government — along with an occasional taste of what it was like to report on those topics.

In 2016 I founded Montana Free Press to help fill the statehouse reporting gap created by the constriction of newsrooms throughout Montana, and in 2019 we resurrected The Montana Lowdown in the form of Montana Free Press’ first podcast — a weekly sit-down interview audio program that featured conversations with influential and interesting people in Montana and beyond.

The intent behind the Montana Lowdown podcast was similar to its namesake blog: to give listeners the opportunity to go behind the scenes and to take in interesting and useful bits of information and context in an easy-to-consume format.

In 2020 our newsroom began a period of explosive growth just as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the state. The growing demands of my day job as executive director and editor-in-chief forced me to step back from producing a weekly interview podcast, so we put Montana Lowdown on the shelf.

Over the past year, we’ve asked you, our readers, to tell us more about your news needs. What we heard is that you want access to news in a format that helps you cut through the information overload and easily understand the most important stories of the week. Basically, you told us you wanted the lowdown on what’s happening across the state from a news team dedicated to keeping you informed.

It made sense to us to take the old Montana Lowdown brand off the shelf, polish it up, and reintroduce it in the form of a weekly subscribers-only newsletter.

It’s hard to imagine launching Montana Lowdown in a week more chock-full of must-read news stories, starting with reporter Eric Dietrich’s scoop on a memo state epidemiologists sent to their boss, Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Adam Meier, criticizing the evidence Meier and Gov. Greg Gianforte used to justify an emergency rule discouraging school mask mandates. The letter, signed by 18 DPHHS scientists, said the rule relied on “misleading and false” claims and “contributes to the spread of misinformation.”

Gianforte’s spokesperson declined to comment to MTFP on the letter and referred questions to the health department. A DPHHS spokesman, in turn, pointed to comments Meier made about the emergency rule back in September, when he told lawmakers the evidence used to support it was “not meant to be a conclusionary scientific study.”

Eric followed that hard-hitting news with a deeply reported feature out of one of Montana’s smallest communities. Carter County, among the state’s most rural and isolated places, somehow bucked national trends and saw a 22% increase in population since 2010, according to new U.S. census data.

Eric took readers to the county seat, Ekalaka, where he found that oil money-funded infrastructure improvements, dinosaur tourism and family ties are among the driving factors leading to a rural renaissance in southeastern Montana.

Mara Silvers has been reporting on the mounting community pressure in the state’s fastest-growing region for the local hospital system to add an inpatient psychiatric unit. This week Silvers reports that Bozeman Health has announced plans to develop a $7 million, 12-bed adult inpatient psychiatric unit at Deaconess Hospital by 2023. The facility will be the first of its kind in Bozeman, and is expected to ease some strain for psychiatric services statewide.

And yet another lawsuit has been filed against the state. (For a complete list of lawsuits stemming from the 2021 Legislature and detailed information on their status, check out MTFP’s digital tracker, Laws on Trial).

In other lawsuit news, on Thursday a Yellowstone County District Court judge blocked three new laws restricting abortion while a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the restrictions plays out. Two of the measures would broadly prohibit abortions after 20 weeks gestational age and require providers to offer patients an ultrasound before an abortion. A third law creates layers of new requirements and data collection for patients seeking a medication abortion earlier in pregnancy. That law would also prohibit the delivery of abortion-inducing medication through the mail. The judge found that all three laws appear unconstitutional under the state’s rights to privacy, individual dignity and equal protection, and therefore should be blocked until the ongoing lawsuit determines their fate.

And finally, Alex Sakariassen took a deep-dive look into the psychology fueling recent allegations of voting irregularities in Montana. Despite the fact that Trump won the state by nearly 100,000 votes, and Republicans swept every statewide office and made gains in the Republican-controlled Legislature, some GOP lawmakers still insist that voting irregularities and fraud occurred in Montana’s 2020 election. According to one researcher, “basic social psychology” explains the phenomenon: “If you want Trump to win, and he loses, it’s easy to believe it was fraud.”

That’s not all…Keep scrolling for more from the MTFP newsroom team!

John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief

Viewshed 🌄

Alexis Bonogofsky, proprietor of the East of Billings blog and MTFP board member, contributed this shot of the South Moccasin Fire that started Monday, Oct. 4. As of Oct. 8, the fire had grown to 12,800 acres and was 80% contained. You can check the status of current Montana fires and air quality at our MT Fire Report, updated hourly, at least until the snows start falling, which forecasts say could be next week in some parts of the state.

Tweetstorm, explained 🌩

The two Republican members of Montana’s congressional delegation criticized the Biden administration Tuesday after U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland told the FBI to begin assessing “a disturbing spike” in threats, harassment and intimidation directed at public school staff, administrators and school boards. Garland’s memo came the same week the National School Board Association asked the Biden administration to respond to threats of violence sparked by school masking requirements and misinformation about critical race theory in school curricula.

Montana’s Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Matt Rosendale both panned the DOJ announcement in statements on Twitter, accusing the Biden administration of attempting to silence political opposition.

Both Twitter posts received dozens of critical comments, with some defending public school officials and citing conduct displayed at local school board meetings.

“Concerned parents don’t send death threats,” wrote user Chris B.

Mara Silvers

The Viz 📈

Montana’s districting commission this week adopted nine potential maps to consider as it works toward finalizing the boundaries of two U.S. congressional districts for the next decade of elections.

Two of the proposals are shown below, overlaid on precinct-level results from the 2020 U.S. House race in which Republican Matt Rosendale defeated Democrat Kathleen Williams by a 56-44 margin. To see all nine proposals, see our full coverage here.

The numeral 0

Eric Dietrich

Happenings 🗓

Though lawmakers tabled two measures seeking statewide recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day this past legislative session, a handful of cities around the state including Missoula, Bozeman and Helena have forged ahead with commemorations of their own accord on the date otherwise recognized as Columbus Day. Here are a handful of Oct. 11 events happening around the state celebrating Indigenous culture and elevating Native voices.

  • In Missoula, lawmaker Shane Morigeau is organizing a rally and call to action to urge Montana to officially embrace Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Masks and signs are encouraged, coffee and donuts will be provided.
  • Also in Missoula, the University of Montana has a full slate of events scheduled throughout the day, including in-person and virtual offerings.
  • Mayor Cyndy Andrus, Mountain Time Arts, Marsha Small and Dr. Walter Fleming are putting on an event in Bozeman that kicks off at 6:10 p.m. and involves a round dance around illuminated tipis. The tipis will be up through Oct. 17.
  • Billings theater Art House Cinema is hosting a screening of Little Big Man, a 1970 film adaptation of a novel by Thomas Berger that was filmed on the Crow Reservation and in Billings. Retired MSU-Billings Native American Studies professor Adrian Heidenreich will talk about the production and its depiction of the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Amanda Eggert

On Our Radar 

Mara: This Kaiser Health News story is a fascinating look into how local ordinances and lawsuits in California are shutting down clean needle distribution programs. It’s a window into a wonky and high-stakes health issue, which I love, in the context of another state with its own idiosyncratic political contours.

Eric: A story on my mind this week: CBS News reports on what newly filed SEC complaints say about Facebook, the company whose service has in many places been the thing that’s filled the local news void.

Amanda: This story in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle about what climate change means for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and how it could intersect with land management skillfully synthesizes climate change projections and policy implications for some of the most beloved landscapes in the state.

Alex: The Daily Montanan capped a series of stories Thursday with big news about leaders at the University of Montana’s law school stepping down amid claims they mishandled sexual assault allegations raised by students.