Montana Free Press is taking an out-of-office holiday break Dec. 27-31. Instead of new stories, we’ll be publishing MTFP reporters’ look back at their most impactful, interesting, challenging, and just plain favorite stories of the past year. Today is Amanda Eggert’s turn.
On the environmental beat, this year brought big news on energy, wildlife and water policy, with the majority-Republican Legislature and Montana’s other elected officials often at odds with President Joe Biden’s administration over how those resources should be managed.
Early in this spring’s legislative session, Montana lawmakers introduced measures expanding the wolf-trapping season, legalizing neck snares, and allowing hunters and trappers to receive reimbursement for wolves they harvest, a measure critics characterized as a “bounty on wolves.” Those measures passed and were taken up by the Fish and Wildlife Commission this summer and fall, where they garnered nearly as much comment as they did during the legislative session — a lot. Lawmakers also passed bills that attempt to expand the circumstances under which people can shoot grizzly bears (which are federally protected) and seek to give the state more authority to decide where grizzlies are located.
Though the state’s approach to predator management drew intense interest from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the public, lawmakers also made some important decisions regarding bison management, shooting down two bills favored by the American Indian caucus that sought to facilitate the transfer of wild bison from Yellowstone National Park to tribes.
In April, Lawmakers passed a wonky measure that removes numeric nutrient standards for Montana waterways, a law that largely flew under the radar but could have big implications for water quality and how water and sewer districts treat effluent. The Legislature also approved a $4 million investment in recreation infrastructure for the Lower Yellowstone River corridor aimed at increasing the eastern half of the state’s share of outdoor recreation dollars. (That money accounts for a sizable chunk of Montana’s economy, according to a November report produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.)
On the energy front, lawmakers weighed high-profile bills centered on the still-uncertain future of Colstrip’s jointly owned coal-fired power plant. The fate of two of those bills, which seek to change contract terms specifying how and where disputes between owners are adjudicated, are currently in litigation. Another Colstrip bill, Senate Bill 379, was one of the most-commented-on bills of the session. It failed when members of the House Energy Committee balked at giving NorthWestern Energy a guaranteed rate of return on future coal power plant acquisitions.
Nuclear energy made big news in Montana this year, too. One measure lawmakers passed struck a 43-year-old law requiring Montana voters to sign off on nuclear projects, and another one directed the state to study advanced nuclear reactors, with an eye toward retrofitting Colstrip’s coal plant for use with small modular reactors.
Energy-adjacent drama didn’t end after the session wrapped up. In May, the Legislative Audit Division released a scathing review of the all-Republican Public Service Commission, which oversees the state’s regulated utilities. The report highlighted commissioners’ spending and the agency’s culture. Also in May, NorthWestern Energy, the state’s largest regulated utility, announced plans to increase its energy supply with a new natural gas plant, a battery storage project, and energy procured from primarily hydroelectric sources. The controversial natural gas plant played a part in a legal challenge over a 2003 law that allows NorthWestern a guaranteed rate of return on energy projects, which is expected to be decided by courts sometime in 2022.
The fate of the Keystone XL Pipeline was a topic of frequent discussion in energy circles as well, with Montana’s congressional delegation and the state’s Republican Attorney General at odds with the Biden administration about the future of the beleaguered pipeline. The dispute was settled once and for all by Canada’s TC Energy in June when it pulled its construction permit for the pipeline.
This summer also brought record heat, the state’s worst drought in at least 20 years (which continued into the fall, contributing to the human-bear conflict challenges FWP’s bear managers faced this year), and disconcertingly warm and low streamflows, which stressed trout and anglers alike. In August, MTFP took a close look at Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s approach to climate change and did a deep dive on Gianforte’s preferred wildfire-mitigation strategy: active forest management.
This year also brought several important developments on the mining front. The Fort Belknap Indian Community and a handful of environmental nonprofits challenged the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s approval of new exploration permits at the Zortman-Landusky mine site in April, and four months later sued the state over its decision to abandon the ‘bad actor” claims against a Hecla executive for his ties to the Zortman-Landusky mining complex. And in another unexpected twist, a 48-hour gap in mineral withdrawal protections allowed the company that owns the former Zortman-Landusky mine site to file new mining claims with the Interior Department, prompting the FBIC and environmental groups to call for an investigation.
Speaking of the DOI, there were some big developments on the personnel front there. Two women who’d served under former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock were nominated to top posts in Biden’s Interior Department. After some heated questioning before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, former DEQ head Tracy Stone-Manning was confirmed to lead the Bureau of Land Management in September. The following month, Biden nominated former Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Martha Williams to lead the U.S. Fish and WIldlife Service. (Her nomination is still being considered by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.)
In a surprising turn of events, the West Wind Fire, arguably the most-talked-about wildfire of the year, started not in July or August, but in December. It appears to have ignited when a NorthWestern Energy power line succumbed to intense wind, and it started the same day the Hebgen Dam (which is also operated by NorthWestern) malfunctioned, driving flows on the Madison River well below record levels. Two weeks ago, MTFP asked experts to weigh in on NorthWestern’s potential liabilities following those events.
Finally, mid-December brought noteworthy developments on FWP’s approach to game management. A proposal that would have increased elk tags for those hunting on private land and reduced the number of tags available to public land hunters drew a flurry of comments, leading FWP to take another swing at the proposals before the Fish and Wildlife Commission and assemble an advisory committee.
That’s a lot of news!
But my favorite stories to report and write in 2021 didn’t intersect with energy, water or wildlife — not directly, anyway. They centered on the past, present and future of central Montana’s Crazy Mountains, looking at the fate of historic Forest Service trails that transect private property, land exchanges under the purview of the Custer Gallatin National Forest, and recent developments regarding one of the largest, most expensive ranches in the area and heliskiing in the range. I loved working on those stories because I think the Crazies are a fascinating microcosm of the power dynamics at play in the state more generally.
How the Crazy Mountains became ground zero in Montana’s most vexing land-use debate.
I expect there will be some big news coming out of the Crazy Mountains debate in the new year. The lawsuit over the Forest Service’s management of disputed trails is slated for a mid-January hearing in Billings. I look forward to being there to report on it.