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If you happen to share my habit of regularly perusing droughtsnowpack and streamflow data,  the current— very quiet — state of wildfire affairs makes sense. A cooler and wetter-than-normal summer throughout most of the state has brought moisture to shrubs and trees, reducing their availability to burn and helping the air quality map included in MTFP’s MT Fire Report mostly maintain that soothing green palette reflective of healthy air. This, despite the fact that there’s been no recent shortage of lightning to zap trees with an ignition source.

This summer so far has been a stark, and welcome, contrast to 2021. We’re halfway through July — the month fire season typically starts in earnest in Montana — and just 4,469 acres have burned in the state. One way to put that acreage into context is to consider 2021’s Robertson Draw Fire outside of Red Lodge, which made an 18,000-acre run during a 48-hour period last June, driven by ferocious wind paired with record high temperatures and extremely low relative humidity.

The record-setting event overwhelming Red Lodge this summer was of an entirely different variety — not too little available water, but far too much. Enough to wash out roadways and bridges and turn the community’s main drag into a temporary channel of Rock Creek.

What should we make of the contrast? 

Earlier this week, I attended a webinar where Jonathan Porter, AccuWeather’s chief meteorologist, talked about the distinction between weather and climate. The abbreviated version is that climate trends concern changes to things like precipitation and temperature over longer time scales — decades, say — whereas weather pertains to day-to-day occurrences.

Those longer-term climate trends can set the stage for extreme weather events, he noted, adding that the American West is in the grips of a persistent drought that’s likely the worst in a 1,200-year period, which he called “the weather and climate story of our lifetime.” That story, which contributed to last summer’s miserable heat dome that brought 116-degree temperatures to Portland, Oregon, is — and will continue to be — on our radar (stay tuned for an air quality FAQ we’ll be publishing soon), but for now, I hope you’ll join me in taking a nice, deep breath of this uncommonly smoke-free July air.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Viewshed 🌄

Credit: David Allen, USFWS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that the Lost Trail Conservation Area, a 38,000-acre parcel in northwestern Montana, is joining the federal government’s wildlife refuge system.

An easement negotiated with property owner Southern Pine Plantations, with an assist from the Trust for Public Land and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, is geared toward protecting “crucial wildlife habitats and migration corridors” for elk, mule deer, grizzly bears, wolverines and Canada lynx traveling between Glacier National Park, the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, the Selkirk Mountains and the Coeur d’Alene Mountains, according to a USFWS release about the agreement.

“The Lost Trail Conservation Area is unique in that it includes private timberland that has historically been open to the public on a voluntary basis and the transition to a national wildlife refuge ensures that public recreational access is maintained in perpetuity,” the release says. “The Lost Trail Conservation Area will allow sustainable commercial timber harvests and provide wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities such as hunting, fishing, hiking and wildlife viewing.”

The deal was executed with funding from the Great American Outdoors Act, which Congress passed in 2020, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which dates to 1965. 

Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Following the Law ⚖️

A federal appeals court ruled last week that the Republican activists who run the vote-tracking website Legistats — which tracks the “loyalty” of GOP lawmakers based on how often they break with their caucus on contested votes — do not have to register as a political committee with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices.  

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling reversed a decision by a state district court, finding that Montana’s campaign finance regulations did not give the activists fair notice that the expenses they incurred while traveling the state and presenting to local Republican groups — meals at McDonald’s, a stay at a La Quinta Inn, for example — were not considered “de minimis” expenses under administrative rules. 

Legistats was founded by the late Republican operative Trevis Butcher of Winifred, and continued by his father, former lawmaker Ed Butcher, and another activist named Lonny Bergstrom. The website essentially ranks Republican lawmakers on their fealty to the party line — a tool for transparency or a blunt object that disciplines bipartisan cooperation, depending on which Republican is asked. 

Whether or not two or more people advocating for or against a candidate constitutes a political committee hinges on an expense threshold of $250. Expenses categorized as “de minimis” don’t count toward the total. The state Commissioner of Political Practices and the district court had found that the pair’s expenses exceeded that sum, qualifying them as a political committee, and that they had failed to register as such. 

The 9th Circuit, however, said the state’s campaign finance rules aren’t clear about “de minimis expenses associated with volunteer services,” and determined that Butcher and Bergstrom are hobbyists “engaged in core political speech that lies at the heart of the First Amendment.”

In a dissent, Judge William Fletcher wrote that Butcher and Bergstrom are “sophisticated political actors [who] acted in a concerted and sustained manner to bring accurate and relevant political information to interested political groups,” and did so as a political committee. 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Approximate number of calls received annually by suicide prevention call centers in Montana. Mental health experts expect that volume to increase with the launch of the Montana 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline — a shorter national emergency number designated by Congress in 2020. The 988 number will be in service beginning Saturday, July 16. Montana callers will be routed through one of three call centers in Great Falls, Bozeman and Missoula, where trained volunteers and staff will help identify available mental health resources. Montana ranks third among U.S. states for suicide rates, according to the most recent CDC data. 

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Say Again? 🤔

This week, MTN News in Helena published an article with an eye-catching quote from state Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, extracted from an email he sent to fellow lawmakers about, well, the purpose of “the womb.”

While waxing philosophical about the ethics of abortion, Tschida said he considers wombs to be a sort of sovereign space — for fetal development. 

“The womb is the only organ in a woman’s body that serves no specific purpose to her life or well-being,” he wrote. “It is truly a sanctuary.”

Tschida doubled down on that perspective when asked about his comments by the MTN News reporter. 

“I’m not going to apologize for saying that,” he said. “I think that’s exactly what it’s there for. It welcomes in a new life and that’s what it’s there to do, to nurture and sustain that life.”

Fetal growth takes place in the uterus, an organ that most certainly affects the life and health of pregnant people, especially during pregnancy complications. 

Tschida, having termed out of the House, is running for the swing seat of Senate District 98, which encompasses a portion of western Missoula including Orchard Homes. His Democratic opponent, Rep. Will Curdy, D-Missoula, called Tschida’s comments “creepy.”

“He is stepping into a place where he’s telling women their bodies don’t count,” Curdy told MTN News. “Or parts of their body don’t count.”

The Montana Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee jumped on the chance to lambast Tschida, an indication of how central abortion policies and politics will be in the run-up to November’s general election. Sheila Hogan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, argued in a Tuesday press release that Tschida’s comments were “disqualifying.”

“If Montana Republicans talk about ‘wombs’ like this, they sure as hell don’t deserve to legislate them,” Hogan wrote.   

The Senate seat Tschida and Curdy are vying for is currently held by long-time Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, one of the Legislature’s most vocal advocates for abortion rights. She last won re-election in 2018 by 3%, or 343 votes.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

Verbatim 💬

“The Ravalli County Republican Central Committee of the State of Montana formally rejects the certified results of the 2020 Presidential election, and we hold that Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was not legitimately elected by the electoral college of the United States.”

The primary declaration of a resolution approved July 5 by a majority of the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee. The document, which closely mirrors resolutions passed by Republicans in Texas and Arizona earlier this summer, triggered a nearly two-hour debate between its supporters and a group of precinct captains surprised by its introduction. Drafters said they intend the resolution to set the stage for similar action at the Montana Republican Party’s platform convention this weekend. The Lewis and Clark County Republican Central Committee approved a similar resolution on Monday.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda — This Montana Public Radio piece about Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ growing interest in bringing on staff with experience in the “human dimensions” of wildlife management caught my eye this week, particularly as bear managers in Montana and Wyoming are getting more calls to relocate or euthanize human-food-conditioned bears.

Eric — Most nonprofits with operating budgets above $50,000 a year (MTFP included) are required to make annual financial filings to the IRS, forms that let the public evaluate how they’re spending their money. Churches and associations of churches have long been exempt from that requirement, however. And, as ProPublica reports this week, a growing number of right-wing advocacy organizations are reclassifying themselves as churches in an apparent bid to shield their finances from scrutiny.

Alex — The Chronicle of Higher Education this week resurfaced a data project from March documenting the peer institutions of roughly 1,500 universities and colleges across the county. The interactive project, built with information reported by universities to the U.S. Department of Education, includes several Montana campuses and offers a comparative look at graduation and enrollment rates on those campuses versus the institutions they consider their peers.

Mara — The U.S. political landscape is still in turmoil after the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated federal abortion rights in late June. Despite significant blowback from voters who support abortion access, Democrats in Congress don’t have a decisive path toward enshrining reproductive rights in law. This Politico article examines some of those fissures as many Americans demand action from their political representatives. 

Arren — Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Arizona, has kept his U.S. House seat in rural northeastern Arizona for several terms despite waves of Republican challengers and tepid results from Democratic candidates at the top of the ballot, largely thanks to Democratic bases in the college town of Flagstaff and on the expansive Navajo Nation. Roll Call has the story of how the recent redrawing of his district coupled with a slate of seven potential Republican opponents could make this the toughest race yet for the so-called Blue Dog Democrat. 

*Some articles may be behind a paywall.