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Last week I was one of many Montanans forced into COVID-19 isolation as the omicron variant surges. Thanks to the vaccine, my symptoms were pretty mild, which meant I was stuck at the house with plenty of pent-up post-holiday energy. 

I put some of that energy into cooking, which led me to the deep freeze, which was in dire need of defrosting. With time on my hands and sub-zero weather to assist me, I took the opportunity to clean out, defrost and reorganize the basement freezer. 

Inevitably, I discovered long-buried packages and containers of miscellaneous food: everything from best-intentions leftovers to soups and stocks of unknown origin to hotdog buns. In most cases, it’s pretty easy to relegate the dark-corner waste of the deep freeze to the compost pile with minimal guilt. But as any hunter will tell you, it’s incredibly disheartening to discover a package of long-buried elk burger or misplaced whitetail backstraps from three or four hunting seasons back. 

Every pound of venison in that freezer was hauled out of the field on someone’s back, painstakingly butchered in my garage, carefully vacuum-sealed to prevent freezer burn, and labeled with the date, the species, and the cut so we could enjoy it months or even years later. Ethics demand that hunters not waste meat from the game animals we’re fortunate enough to harvest. 

I found myself thinking about my freezer-burned venison distress as I read the first two parts of Amanda Eggert’s series on wildlife crossings in Montana. How many tens of thousands of pounds of high-quality deer, elk and antelope meat go to waste along Montana’s roadways each year (to say nothing of the eagles, coyotes and other scavengers that become secondary victims of animal-vehicle collisions)?

Wildlife-vehicle collisions are costly — and dangerous — to motorists, and nearly always fatal for wildlife. And only in West Virginia are you more likely to be involved in a wildlife collision than in Montana. 

Wildlife accommodations — measures designed to mitigate the impacts of roadways and traffic on wildlife — reduce the chances you’ll hit a deer or elk while cruising down the highway, but they’re relatively rare in our state. 

As Amanda’s series explores, Montana was once a national leader in building passageways that allow wildlife to safely cross otherwise nearly impenetrable barriers. But today we’re lagging. Montana has just 122 wildlife accommodations, and two-thirds of those are located along Highway 93. And most of those are thanks to the efforts of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which demanded their construction on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Meanwhile, our neighbors to the south are taking a collaborative, scientific approach to increase the prevalence of wildlife crossings, and they’re seeing cost-saving results. 

Next week, Part 3 of Amanda’s series will take a close look at U.S. Highway 191 between Bozeman and Big Sky, one of the only highway segments in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem lacking a wildlife crossing, and the stretch of highway with the state’s second-highest wildlife carcass rate. 

Reading Amanda’s stories didn’t necessarily make me feel better about the fact that I won’t be turning that freezer-burned elk into a delicious bolognese or a spicy Italian meatloaf, but it did reinforce the value we place on wildlife in this state. And the meat didn’t go to waste after all. It turns out my dog, Rollo, loves freezer-burned elk.

John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief

By the Numbers 🔢

Number of at-home rapid COVID-19 tests ordered by the state this week to help combat the surging omicron variant. Gov. Greg Gianforte said Thursday that the tests are expected to be delivered the week of Jan. 24 and will be distributed to local public health agencies for distribution to the general public.

Departures 🥀

Rick Reese, a one-time Carroll College political science professor who became one of the Northern Rockies’ most committed conservationists, passed away Jan. 9 at the age of 79 from leukemia.

Reese was raised in Utah but cut his conservation teeth in Wyoming and Montana. While earning degrees from the University of Utah and the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, he worked summers as a climbing ranger in Grand Teton National Park. He participated in multiple mountain rescues, developing a reputation for his unflappability and can-do attitude — traits that were later featured in “The Grand Rescue,” a 2014 documentary about a high-stakes 1967 alpine rescue Reese participated in.

Reese (disclosure: an MTFP donor) later moved to Helena and took a teaching position at Carroll College where he encouraged his students to serve as interns at Montana’s historic 1972 Constitutional Convention.

In 1980 he took his experience as an educator in a different direction, teaching people about the wonders of Yellowstone National Park as the head of the Yellowstone Institute. Three years later, he served as founding president of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and helped advance the idea of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to help the public better conceptualize its importance.

Gallatin Wildlife Association President Clint Nagel saw Reese’s conservation ethic in action when they served together on a group trying to hash out the fate of the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area. Nagel said he remembers Reese as soft-spoken and gentle, but also tenacious.

“He had a dogged determination to protect wild places as much as possible [and] a philosophy that a man’s life is not [measured] by the amount of money that he can make, but in his good works.” Nagel added that Reese was a “monumental figure in environmental preservation” and described his passing as a great loss.

“I guess it’s up to us to pick up the pieces and finish the job,” Nagel said.

—Amanda Eggert

The Viz 📈

The wave of winter storms that hit Montana over the holidays brought the state’s snowpack up substantially. Data from the National Resources Conservation Service indicates that snow levels in many of the state’s watersheds are now at or above average.

As much as that precipitation is welcome news to Montanans looking ahead to next year’s fire season, most of the state remains under drought status, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor

—Eric Dietrich

Happenings 🗓️

Thursday marked opening day for candidate filing in Montana, which is about as close to an official campaign season kick-off as it gets. The next six months will doubtless be filled with congressional race commercials, legislative primary yard signs and coffee shop chatter about school board elections. To make it a little easier for readers to map out the early half of 2022, we’ve rounded up some of the key dates voters might want to add to their calendar alerts or refrigerator doors. For a more detailed schedule, you can find the Secretary of State’s 2022 primary election calendar here and the 2022 school election calendar here.

March 14: Candidate filing closes, at which point voters will have a pretty good idea what names they’ll see on their 2022 primary ballots.

April 4: Close of regular voter registration for local school elections. You can still register to vote, but only at county election offices.

April 13: County officials begin sending out local school election ballots by mail.

April 22: By this date county election officials are required to have mailed primary election ballots to military and overseas voters.

May 2: Late registration for local school elections ends at noon, per a new state law terminating same-day voter registration.

May 3: Election Day for local school board candidates.

May 9: Regular voter registration for the primary election closes, but you can still register after this date at your county’s election office or other specified late-registration locations. This also marks the point at which election officials begin testing their voting systems, a process that is open to public observation.

May 13: Primary ballots go out by mail to registered absentee voters.

June 6: Late voter registration for the primary election closes at noon. As noted in the Montana Secretary of State’s 2022 election calendar, anyone who is in line as of noon will be allowed to complete their registration.

June 7: Polls open statewide for primary election voters at 7 a.m. and remain open until 8 p.m.

—Alex Sakariassen

On Our Radar 

Mara Silvers — Montana’s behavioral health providers have been sounding the alarm about staffing shortages fueled by low pay and burnout. Lee Newspapers State Bureau reports that those problems seem to be compounding at the Montana State Hospital, the state’s only public psychiatric facility, where an elderly patient died in August. Lawmakers plan to discuss MSH operations at a meeting later this month.  

Alex Sakariassen — Time hasn’t been kind to a lot of schools across Montana, and districts are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to upgrade decades-old facilities. Explore Big Sky gave digital ink this week to the situation in Ennis, where school leaders have asked voters to approve a $59 million bond to fund a new high school — a request that’s raised concerns in a slice of the district that overlaps with the Big Sky community.

Amanda Eggert — The U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s recent hearing on hydropower, including pumped hydropower storage projects like the Gordon Butte proposal near Martinsdale, caught my interest this week. According to the National Hydropower Association, there are more than 50 gigawatts of pumped storage projects in the pipeline, but no new permits have been issued for 20 years.

Eric Dietrich  — Reddit’s AskHistorians forum is maybe my favorite internet rabbit hole, combining folks who are geeky enough to write multi-hundred-word screeds on historical topics with moderation that’s serious about rigorous fact-checking. Those moderators announced their list of the best posts of 2021 this week — including this one discussing whether Soviet-era Russians actually liked their architecture.

*Linked articles may be behind a paywall.