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I used to like to tell people I have a face made for radio. Since we hired reporter Mara Silvers at Montana Free Press, I’ve learned that what I actually have is a voice made for print.
I enlisted in 2020 to report an episode of Season 1 of Shared State, Mara’s brainchild podcast, and she taught me some things I never expected to learn. Like don’t eat peanut butter prior to recording vocals. Who knew?
Still, I’m not my voice’s biggest fan, so I’m glad I didn’t get drafted for a speaking role on Season 2, which we released this week. Instead we called on MTFP reporters Alex Sakariassen, Eric Dietrich and Mara (who wears more hats around here than a milliner) and some of the most talented journalists in Montana, like frequent MTFP contributor Justin Franz, Shaylee Ragar, Aaron Bolton, Katheryn Houghton and Melissa Loveridge, to create an eight-episode narrative podcast that cuts to the core of the current political moment in Montana.
I got to contribute as one of several editors, listening to table reads and rough mixes and asking questions. Mostly, though, I got to learn from Mara, reporter/editor Nick Mott, editor Nicky Ouellet and all our co-producing collaborators at Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio.
The result is a stand-out example of MTFP’s mission to innovate and collaborate to deliver depth, context, nuance and insight about the state we all call home, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I hope you find it as rewarding a listen as I did.
—Brad Tyer, Editor
By the Numbers 🔢
Number of avalanche fatalities in Montana this winter. Avalanches in Cooke City and West Yellowstone have killed three snowmobilers and one snowbiker since late December — more than double the rate at which motorized users in Montana have died in avalanches over the past decade. The increase coincides with a surge of interest in winter backcountry sports as reported by avalanche forecasters, search and rescue volunteers and the snowmobile industry.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
Following the Law ⚖️
On Monday, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen announced he’d joined another multistate lawsuit against the federal government, this time over an incident last fall involving the U.S. Department of Justice and reported threats against school board trustees around the country.
Here’s the backstory: Ahead of the 2021-22 academic year, local discussions about how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic in public schools got tense. In Montana and elsewhere, frustrated parents lashed out at school officials for proposing policies they judge as either lackluster or oppressive, depending which side of the masking debate they fell on. The situation prompted the National School Boards Association in September to write President Joe Bidenrequesting federal assistance with threats and acts of violence against school officials that the organization likened to “domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”
Biden’s Justice Department responded by establishing a task force to investigate such threats. But NSBA’s reference to “domestic terrorism” inflamed tensions among education leaders and a growing parental rights movement. Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen called on the Montana School Boards Association to cut ties with NSBA and join her in “unified support of our students and parental rights.” In late October, NSBA issued a public apology saying there was “no justification for some of the language” in its letter.
Attorneys general in 14 states, including Knudsen, demanded that Biden and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland likewise “disavow their own involvement in this offensive episode.”
Now those same AGs are asking for records from Biden, Garland and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona related to the episode. The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Indiana, alleges that all three offices failed to fulfill or acknowledge Freedom of Information Act requests for emails, memos and other documents detailing interactions with NSBA last fall. Knudsen said Montanans deserve “a full accounting” of Biden’s “plans to surveil parents who attended school board meetings.” Arntzen thanked Knudsen for his involvement and added, “the rights of Montana parents to engage in their children’s education must be respected.”
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
Yellowstone Insight tour guide MacNeil Lyons captured this image of a wolverine — a rare and infamously elusive carnivore — on March 4 while leading a tour through Yellowstone National Park.
“For a hot second, [my guest and I] both thought that it might be a young black bear moving away from us, but as it turned and looked over its right shoulder towards us — there was no mistaking that the animal was indeed, a Wolverine,” Lyons wrote in a Facebook postabout the sighting.
Lyons noted that fewer than 10 wolverines are estimated to live inside the park and described the upper-elevation-dwelling creatures as being “like the top animal to see in Yellowstone National Park” in an interview with KTVQ. “It was truly one of those magical moments. I don’t know how to describe it. We were both speechless at the time,” he said.
Five days later, there was an even more unlikely wolverine sightinginside Lewistown city limits. The Lewistown News-Argus shared a video taken by resident Nick Nowack, who recorded the animal sprinting along a roadside as he drove to work. That post has since been shared nearly 900 times.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
Say Again? 🤔
Former Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton announced a combination country music tour and exploratory bid for the U.S. presidency this week, saying he plans to take his “Testing the Waters” tour around the nation as he tries to raise money to support a potential campaign.
“I’m very serious, just like anyone that’s looking at running for office,” he said in an interview with MTFP this week. “It’s not something you do lightly.”
Stapleton, a former Navy officer who lives in Billings, served in the state Senate before he was elected in 2016 to a four-year term as secretary of state, Montana’s top election administrator. He made an unsuccessful primary bid for the U.S. House in 2020, then publicly called for President Donald Trump to concede the 2020 election to President Joe Biden before many of his fellow Republicans.
Since leaving office at the beginning of 2021, Stapleton has occupied himself with a new career as a country music artist. A YouTube video of his single “Western Son” had 159 views as of Thursday.
Stapleton, who said he’s considering seeking the Republican Party presidential nomination in 2024, said this week that he hopes his tour can push the party and the nation as a whole in a new direction.
“We can be strong and still have manners,” he said.
Stapleton said Thursday that he doesn’t have any performances booked yet, but plans to announce appearances on his website, coreystapleton.com.
“We’re going to try and hit the Iowas and the New Hampshires, and swing up to Montana and hit some shows,” he said.
—Eric Dietrich, Reporter
The Viz 📈
In an order issued this week, a federal court redrew the district map used to elect Montana’s utility regulation board, the Public Service Commission. A group of plaintiffs filed suit last year arguing that the long-neglected map doesn’t reflect statewide population shifts, meaning voters in some districts (i.e., the district that includes Bozeman) had less proportional say on the utility commission than voters in slower-growing parts of the state (i.e., Great Falls and the Hi-Line).
The state Legislature’s Republican leadership acknowledged the commission map needed updating after new census data was released last year, but argued it would be better to let lawmakers do the job when the Legislature next meets in 2023. A panel of federal judges disagreed, ruling the current map unconstitutional and ordering Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen to use a court-drawn map until the Legislature draws a new one.
Here’s what that new map, which will likely be in effect for this fall’s election, looks like:
Public Service Commission districts 1 and 5 are up for election this year. The filing deadline is Monday, March 14.
—Eric Dietrich, Reporter
The Viz 📈
We here at MTFP appreciate our eagle-eyed and engaged readers. Now it’s time to test your listening skills on Season 2 of our Shared State podcast.* Anyone who sends in correct answers to the three questions below will be entered to win MTFP swag: hats, mugs, sweaters and more. Let’s get started.
Episode 1: Political Feuds Don’t Take Vacations
1. What is the name of the wilderness area in which Kascie and Dan vacationed in the summer of 2020?
2. Reporter Nick Mott compares the viral video of Tucker Carlson and Dan Bailey to what magical device from the Harry Potter series?
3. Who was in the black SUV waiting for Kascie and Dan at the end of their trip?
Submit your answers using this form by 5 p.m. Mountain Time on Monday, March 14, and we’ll randomly select one winner from the correct entries to send some sweet MTFP gear.
*Yes, we know, there are transcripts available to just look up these answers. We trust you to listen first and verify later. Have fun!
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda Eggert — Wyofile reported on a Montana State University student’s unexpected catch on the Gardner River: a smallmouth bass. While common in the Lower Yellowstone River, the non-native species’ late-February sighting just a few feet north of the Yellowstone National Park boundary has anglers, park biologists and local fly shop owners concerned. The park has since directed anglers who hook smallmouth to kill them and report the catch to park officials.
Mara Silvers — Texas families with transgender kids have had a tremendously stressful few weeks. In February, that state’s governor and attorney general equated gender-affirming care with child abuse and initiated child protection investigations based on that false premise. Notably, as this Texas Tribune article fleshes out, the whole grim situation is fueled by a political strategy that recognizes transgender rights as a flashpoint for the conservative electorate. As one political scientist surmised, Texas Republicans are “definitely feeling confident that this is an agenda that can keep them in power.”
Alex Sakariassen — A few weeks back, High Country News published a story that had the angler in me absolutely hooked. The piece chronicles how invasive brook trout arrived in the West, and looks deep inside a novel new approach to ridding streams of the species — one that sounds oddly similar to the plotline of Michael Crichton’s classic novel “Jurassic Park.”
Eric Dietrich — Maybe it’s just the time of year I always start longing for Montana summer, but I found myself spending more time than I care to admit this week engrossed by this old Forest Service report on the economics of the state’s huckleberry-picking industry.
* Some articles may be behind a paywall.