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Montana Free Press on Monday will officially launch our latest project, MTFP Local.

This new venture aims to enhance news coverage in Montana communities and expand on the kind of in-depth, trustworthy journalism you’ve come to expect from Montana Free Press.

We’ve already published a few articles under the MTFP Local banner — complete with a fancy new logo — that we hope caught your attention, including Ashley Nerbovig’s story about the rising cost of housing in Bonner and Frank Eltman’s story earlier this week about a controversial “glamping” proposal along the Gallatin River.

On Monday, MTFP Local will offer an article by Flathead journalist Justin Franz about two Montana businesses — a brewery in Columbia Falls and the hospital in Bozeman — that are working to ease the housing crunch for their employees. Those efforts won’t end the housing crisis in those communities, but they do show how some Montanans are trying to make a dent in one of the largest issues facing our state. Keep an eye out for it next week.

One of our goals for MTFP Local is to highlight coverage that focuses on solutions rather than just problems, and Franz’s story is a step in that direction. It’s a brand of journalism we hope you’ll appreciate.

We’re also looking for more journalists to produce this kind of coverage. If you’re interested in joining our growing cohort of freelance contributors, we encourage you to submit some information about yourself and a couple of writing samples. We look forward to hearing from you.

Montana is a big state, and it can be difficult to comprehend all of its nuances. We hope that by expanding our coverage into local communities, big and small, we can help us all better understand this grand place we call home.

—Nick Ehli, MTFP Local Editor

Verbatim 💬

“Our results show that there is no voter fraud, at least the type that was being alleged as with missing affirmation envelopes. So I think it’s disingenuous to be calling for a special session that would use taxpayer dollars when there is no problem. I don’t understand now what the reason would be.”

Missoula County Republican Party Chair Vondene Kopetski, speaking with Montana Free Press Thursday about her organization’s recent count of ballot affirmation envelopes from Missoula’s 2020 general election. Kopetski organized the effort in cooperation with Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman to “put to rest” an allegation of a 4,500-envelope discrepancy stemming from a separate citizen count in January 2021. Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, who spearheaded the earlier count, and other Republican lawmakers have alluded to that allegation in calling for a special legislative session to vote on establishing a committee to investigate election integrity in Montana. The count overseen by Kopetski this week resulted in a 71-envelope discrepancy — a difference Kopetski characterized as “statistically insignificant.”

Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Money raised on an online fundraising platform for the family of Craig Clouatre, a 40-year-old Livingston man who died last week in an apparent grizzly attackwhile shed hunting near Emigrant Peak in Paradise Valley. The fundraiser was started by a family friend looking for ways to support Craig’s wife and four school-age children. A handful of local businesses including a coffee shop, a brewery and a dog-grooming and training business are pitching in some of their proceeds to support the Clouatre family as well.

Amanda Eggert, Reporter

The Viz 📈

New county-level population data from the U.S. Census Bureau gives us another statistical look at how Montana’s population has shifted over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. (In case you missed it, we previously wrote up a separate study based on state tax data.)

The trends in the new data, the Census Bureau’s best effort to estimate how Montana populations changed in the year ending July 1, 2021, shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone who’s been keeping an eye on the state’s demographic trajectory: big growth driven by in-migration in western Montana, especially around destination urban centers like Kalispell, Bozeman and Missoula.

There’s also been significant growth in relatively rural counties adjacent to the big urban hot spots — places like Lincoln County, Mineral County, Broadwater County and, especially, Ravalli County south of Missoula.

The census data also breaks out population change by its fundamental components, tabulating birth and death counts for each county in addition to estimated migration. If you want to take a closer look at that data, we published a full story this week that includes an interactive version of this map.

—Eric Dietrich, Reporter

Quiz ✅

It’s time again 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 4: Surviving pandemic strife

  1. How does McCone County’s public health officer, Sue Good, describe the level of conservatism in her community? 
  2. What was the Ravalli County Board of Public Health scheduled to discuss during its October meeting?
  3. What kind of animal did a Hamilton School District bus sideswipe sometime before the district’s October school board meeting?

Submit your answers using this form by 5 p.m. Mountain Time on Monday, April 4, and we’ll randomly select one winner from the correct entries to send some sweet MTFP gear. Special shout out to Linda in Bozeman, winner of last week’s quiz competition! 

*Yes, we know, there are transcripts available to just look up the answers. We trust you to listen first and verify later. Have fun!

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda Eggert — This is the time of year when the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation like to have their wildland firefighter payrolls firmed up, but this story on firefighter shortages suggests that’s been a struggle, even in light of recent pay bumps announced by state and federal agencies. It’ll be interesting to watch staffing levels, given the tightness of Montana’s labor market and agency heads’ concerns about firefighter burnout in the face of ever-longer and more dangerous wildfire seasons.

Mara Silvers — When I was researching my episode about medical aid in dying for this season of Shared State, I learned a bunch of interesting facts about how Montana and other states handle that issue. Among them: Oregon has long limited medical aid in dying to Oregon residents, even though many surrounding states have not legalized the practice. That changed this week when Oregon settled a lawsuit alleging that prohibiting terminally ill, out-of-state residents from receiving aid in dying violated state law and the U.S. Constitution. You can read more about this from NPR’s coverage.

Alex Sakariassen — In light of the ongoing legal battle over new voter laws in Montana, I’ve been keeping an eye out for developments in similar court cases elsewhere in the country. A major one shook loose in the Miami Herald this week when a federal judge in Florida ruled that several provisions in a voter law passed there in 2021 are unconstitutional, and barred Florida lawmakers from passing future voter laws without court approval. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has already suggested the ruling will be appealed in circuit court.

Eric Dietrich — It’s tax season, which means that if you’re like me you’ve been bombarded with “free! free! free!” advertisements from a certain tax filing company. Those ads, it turns out, are cited in a new legal complaint filed against that company, Intuit, by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC alleges the company has engaged in a longstanding pattern of deceptive advertising around its TurboTax product, luring customers with the promise of a free service and then informing many users that they actually need to upgrade to a paid version of the software only after they’ve entered their financial information. As ProPublica has reported extensively, Intuit has also spent decades lobbying against reforms that could make tax filing less of a headache because those reforms would hurt its multi-billion-dollar business.

Brad Tyer — The Havre Daily News made a splash this week with an exceptional piece of longform narrative journalism from University of Montana senior Jason Stahl, who revisited Chester, Montana, to explore the September 2021 Amtrak derailment that killed three people, injured dozens, and spawned a raft of ongoing lawsuits. The tragedy, in Stahl’s detailed telling, also put a spotlight on a community that was ready, willing and able to help the survivors at a moment’s notice, introducing a trainload of traumatized travelers to the best of Montana during the worst moments of their lives.

* Some articles may be behind a paywall.