The MT Lowdown is a weekly digest that showcases a more personal side of Montana Free Press’ high-quality reporting while keeping you up to speed on the biggest news impacting Montanans. Want to see the MT Lowdown in your inbox every Friday? Sign up here.

About a year ago, MTFP and our friends in public radio set out to make a second season of Shared State, our narrative politics podcast. After gauging the political climate and having rounds of discussion, we decided to set our sights for season two on stories that explore how Montanans are working through thorny political divisions. 

I was excited but also daunted, in part because of this lingering worry: What if we poured time, energy and money into this project only to end up feeling like our theme missed the mark? What if political intransigence and polarization seemed like a non-issue in early 2022?

We’re now about a week away from our Shared State season two debut and, without a doubt, I can say the theme isn’t stale at all. I’m convinced these stories will feel like required listening, largely because they’re not just about a slate of problems. The episodes are about people looking directly at divisive, real-life issues and asking — what are we going to do about this?

That down-to-brass-tacks approach is backed by an inherent optimism: A belief that talking about issues with compassion and nuance is generally helpful. This season shows its cards in the first episode when my co-host Nick Mott shares his interview with Montana State University political science professor Jessi Bennion, who reflects on what she proposes to new students at the beginning of each semester.

“Just to be curious, to be able to learn new things from each other, even if we don’t agree,” Bennion says. “I think that we can kind of take that same approach in the politics of our everyday life as well.”

Looking closely at the politics of ‘everyday life,’ Bennion says, can help shift our focus away from the hyperpolarized circus of national politics. When our stories start close to home, humility and curiosity might come a little easier. Shared State raises a glass to that possibility. 

The people behind this season (nine reporters, seven editors, three producers, two hosts and many others) are eager to share these stories with you. Beginning March 7, look for Shared State on your favorite podcast app or the Montana Free Press website. You can also listen on the radio: episodes will broadcast on Montana Public Radio at 4:00 p.m on Sundays and on Yellowstone Public Radio at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays.

Thanks for tuning in. And, of course, for staying curious.

Mara Silvers, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Amount of damages a Cascade County jury awarded to a former Libby vermiculite millworker who contracted asbestosis, a lung disease that develops after asbestos fibers become embedded in lung tissue. The award includes $6.5 million in compensatory damages and $30 million in punitive damages to be collected from the insurance company that ran W.R. Grace’s occupational safety program. The jury award is notable not only for the amount but also because the jury determined that W.R. Grace’s bankruptcy, a 13-year-saga that ended in 2014, doesn’t prevent former workers from filing claims against the company’s insurer, Maryland Casualty Company, which is now part of insurance company Zurich.

For the Record 📣

Montana’s U.S. Senators, Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Steve Daines, both made public statements Thursday condemning the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale also weighed in, saying he believes the U.S. has no “legal or moral obligation” to be involved in the conflict. 

—Eric Dietrich, Reporter

Viewshed 🌄 

Credit: National Weather Service

National Weather Service staff documented this otherworldly phenomenon in the early morning hours on Wednesday. “Ice crystals suspended in the air typically prefer a horizontal orientation, which reflects light upwards” the agency explained in a tweet about the light pillars that had formed in the still, bitingly cold air outside the agency’s Billings office. The cold set new records at several locations around the state ranging from the NWS Billings office location (-26 degrees Fahrenheit) to Livingston (-25 F), Great Falls (-24 F) and Stanford (-18 F).

Verbatim 💬

“We argue that there is an honest assessment needed of the teaching profession. We must acknowledge the increased stress that our teachers are under and the chronic low pay that has plagued the profession for decades.”

Tricia Seifert, head of Montana State University’s Department of Education, testifying at a public hearing Thursday on proposed changes to Montana’s teacher licensing regulations.

The changes, recommended to the Board of Public Education by Superintendent Elsie Arntzen last month, include broadening certification requirements to allow teachers from alternative preparation programs in other states to obtain a Montana license.

Speaking on behalf of the Montana Council of Deans of Education and 10 in-state educator preparation programs, Seifert cited extensive academic research in cautioning that it would be “irresponsible” for Montana to treat alternative programs as equal to accredited ones. The Board of Public Education will continue taking public comment on Arntzen’s recommendations through April 8.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

The Viz 📈

It’s a point of pride in many Montana circles that the state still has (for the time being) more cows than people. According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Montana had in total 2.5 million bovines on its landscape as of Jan. 1, 2021 — that is, more than two head of cattle for each of the state’s 1.1 million human residents even before the year’s spring calf crop came in.

However, neither cows nor people are evenly spread between the state’s forests, plains and ranchette-filled subdivisions. U.S. Census population counts of human residents outnumber the reported cattle counts in 11 counties, including most of Montana’s urban centers. Fast-growing Gallatin County, including Bozeman, was at not quite three residents per cow as of the beginning of last year. However, its ratio has a ways to go before it catches up with Missoula County, home to nearly 21 people for every cow.

Beef is still king out east though, at least if you set aside Billings. Custer County, which includes Miles City, was pegged at 7.6 cows per capita despite its status as a regional hub. Even so, its ratio paled to some of its sparsely populated neighbors. Among them: Carter County, which ranks as the beefiest corner of the state with about 64 cows for each of its 1,400 residents.

—Eric Dietrich, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda Eggert — Settle in with a beverage of your choice for this long piece in The Guardian about the “tangle” at the heart of rural America’s political makeup. Gunnison, Colorado, writer Nick Bowlin covers a lot of ground here, from economic trends and land acquisition patterns to the garb worn by politicians in western states.

Mara Silvers — Pressure continues to mount on state health officials in charge of the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs, the state’s only public adult psychiatric facility. Lee Newspapers reports the hospital is now on a March deadline to remedy shortfalls identified by federal inspectors, including inadequate patient safety protocols linked to fatal falls among elderly patients. 

Alex Sakariassen — The Chronicle of Higher Education hit my inbox recently with a compelling long-form profile of a film student at Hawaii Pacific University, whose struggle to contend with the financial and personal challenges facing so many college students today has been compounded not just by the pandemic, but by the effects of long-haul COVID-19.

Eric Dietrich — This Willamette Week story out of Portland, Oregon, my hometown, is among the best pieces of old-fashioned investigative journalism I’ve read in quite a while. At its heart is the question of whether a prominent West Coast textile/newspaper/gravel baron is betraying thousands of workers in his crumbling business empire by stuffing his company’s pension fund with overvalued (and potentially contaminated) industrial properties.

* Some articles may be behind a paywall.