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I’ve spent the past six weeks sitting at my desk, at home in Missoula, posting Twitter updates about wildfires and air quality with a very blue sky outside my window.

I’ve been stressed about having too little news to cover during my summer fire reporting internship with MTFP, and even more stressed about the occasional unwelcome wish that there had been more fires to make me feel useful. Editor’s note: Keely is being modest. She’s been critical to the development of our 2022 MT Fire Tracker, and reported wonderful stories about the coal seam fires of eastern Montana, the intricacies of fire retardant, and how to understand and protect yourself from wildfire smoke, along with periodic updates on the state of wildfire in Montana.  

I wanted this internship, honestly, because I was a huge MTFP fan. I admired the reporters and editors and knew that if I had the chance to work with them I could learn a lot. Thanks to University of Montana journalism professor Dennis Swibold for recommending I email editor Brad Tyer, months ago, asking for the opportunity. Editor’s note: Ditto — thanks Dennis!

My first big internship takeaway was that when you’re feeling stuck, just go and do something. I waffled around the first week or so in early July wondering how to cover a fire season that just wasn’t yet happening. Then I compiled a basic update of what little activity there was, and that was my first story for MTFP. I started doing daily Twitter updates. 

I did what I was asked to do, like build a database of every Montana county’s emergency service contacts, but I also gave assignments to myself. And I asked for more work when I found myself with spare time. 

Internships have changed in the past few years, driven in large part by the pandemic and changing office environments. 

I did this internship remotely and received edits via Google docs and over the phone with Brad. He is detail-oriented as heck, and I learned to remember to ask and answer a story’s easy questions before diving into the complicated stuff. 

Environmental beat reporter Amanda let me debrief with her over the phone when I was upset about a story. 

Deputy editor Eric Dietrich gave me a glimpse into what makes data cool and how to present it so it can best be understood. 

The way I see it, an internship is a super-condensed period of time where you’re supposed to learn a lot from people who know more than you. And as my internship comes to a close this week, I’m grateful that’s what happened during my internship with MTFP. Editor’s note: We’re grateful too, Keely. Thanks for your hard work and can-do attitude, and we can’t wait to see what you do next. 

And then, the day before my last day, we all went floating on the Clark Fork under a perfectly blue sky that didn’t stress me out in the least. 

—Keely Larson, Fire Reporting Intern

By the Numbers 🔢

Gallons of long-term fire retardant dropped on the Elmo Fire that started July 29, according to the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team responding to the fire. As of Friday morning, the Elmo Fire has burned 21,349 acres and is 75% contained. For more on the who-what-when-where-how of fire retardant, see Keely Larson’s story this week

Campaign Dispatch 

Voters in Montana’s newly created western U.S. House district had their first opportunity to see Republican Ryan Zinke and Democrat Monica Tranel share a stage this week, as the two — along with Libertarian nominee John Lamb — hashed out their differences on abortion, climate change and more.

The City Club Missoula candidate forum was conceived as a moderated discussion of policy and records guided by audience questions, though at times it offered flashes of a debate, and a bruising one at that. 

The morning’s signature moment followed a question from Bitterroot Republican legislative candidate Wayne Rusk about how the state should deal with drug abuse. Zinke, a former congressman and Trump-era Secretary of the Interior who resigned that position amid swirling ethics probes, called for closing the U.S. border with Mexico, alleging an influx of drugs like fentanyl from the southern border. 

Tranel, a former attorney for the Public Service Commission, said the flow of drugs into the U.S. is much more complex, and pivoted to focus on the need for bolstered mental health and substance abuse treatment. Zinke said he agreed with that latter point, but added that anyone who doesn’t see the southern border as a problem “has their head so deep in the sand they’ll never see the light.”

He then claimed that a former Tranel client, climate action group 350 Montana, supports defunding the police, suggesting that Tranel was trying to have it both ways in her stated support for law enforcement. Tranel represented the organization in a suit against NorthWestern Energy challenging the so-called pre-approval law. 

Zinke’s claim appears to stem from a single 2020 tweet in which the 350 Montana account called for a rethinking of the role of police and a diversion of police funding. The tweet, which did not call for out-and-out defunding of law enforcement, is included in a file of opposition research from the National Republican Congressional Committee. 

Despite having exhausted her allowed speaking time, Tranel asked moderator Sally Mauk for a 15 second rebuttal. “He misrepresented me,” she said. 

Mauk didn’t say yes, but Tranel walked over to Zinke regardless and took the microphone from his hand. Zinke didn’t seem to resist, but he didn’t exactly offer the mic, either. 

“Mr. Zinke, I actively support funding our police, let me be unequivocal and clear,” she said. “For you to misrepresent me in front of this crowd does no service for democracy.”

Zinke responded by asking whether Tranel was indeed legal counsel for Montana 350. 

“Do you wanna have a debate? Let’s have a debate,” Tranel said, again taking the mic from a visibly bewildered Zinke, a moment captured by Lee newspapers photographer Antonio Ibarra. 

“I do represent 350 Montana, and in that capacity I have reduced your energy costs, she said. “Because I represent one client does not mean that I ascribe to everything that client does.”

Zinke’s campaign later called Tranel’s debate performance “cringey.” Tranel’s campaign countered on Twitter that “when a candidate lies, we need to stand up to defend the truth.”

Supporters on both sides took to social media. Mauk said on Twitter she “needs practice herding cats.” 

350 Montana co-chair Jeff Smith authored an op-ed in Friday’s Independent Record extolling Tranel’s work for the organization and asserting that he didn’t see how defunding the police would help address global warming.

“I’m sorry to suggest this to Ryan,” Smith wrote, “but he might want to pay his opposition researchers more money to get the facts right.”

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

Following the Law ⚖️

Appellants in a lawsuit challenging a pair of restrictions on ballot initiative efforts in Montana got some mixed news from a federal appellate court Wednesday. Judges with the 9th Circuit ruled that Montana’s in-state residency requirement for signature gatherers violated the First Amendment, but shot down the appellants’ argument that a prohibition on paying those gatherers based on how many signatures they collect is a burden to ballot access.

The case dates back to May 2018, when a trio of conservative political committees including the Montana Coalition for Rights filed a lawsuit against then-Secretary of State Corey Stapleton. The groups asked a federal judge in Helena to immediately strike down the residency and payment requirements for citizen ballot initiatives, claiming that their respective petitions to get three separate items on the 2018 ballot had been stymied by state law. Those initiatives would have put the question to voters whether to restrict the Legislature from amending or repealing laws passed by ballot initiative, to redefine Montana’s definition of qualified voter, and to require courts to disclose to individuals charged with civil or misdemeanor penalties the identities of their accusers.

None of those initiatives appeared on the 2018 ballot, a fact the committees argued was due to the unwillingness of out-of-state signature-gathering companies to operate under Montana’s restrictions. The U.S. District Court in Helena finally ruled on the matter in December 2020, siding with the state and preserving Montana’s citizen ballot initiative requirements. The committees then took their fight to the 9th Circuit, claiming before the court this February that the requirements create monopolies for in-state signature-gathering organizations, effectively restricting the committees’ ability to access the ballot.

“They’re also organizations that our appellants, which are of a more conservative nature, would never use anyway, even if they would deign to accept our appellants to circulate their petitions,” Paul Rossi, one of the appellants’ lead attorneys, told judges in February.

The deadline for signature-gathering for the 2022 general election ballot passed nearly two months ago, so the 9th Circuit’s order comes too late for any efforts the Montana Coalition for Rights and its fellow appellants may have undertaken to put their issues to voters this year. But the ruling now sends the case back down to the district court in Helena, with a directive that it allow non-resident petitioners to join the signature-gathering fold in future cycles.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Viewshed 🌄

On Thursday, Aug. 11, most of the MTFP staff headed to Missoula for a meet-and-greet happy hour at Imagine Nation Brewing (many thanks to INB for hosting, and to everyone who came out to say howdy). We took advantage of the gathering to indulge a half-day staff retreat float through Tarkio Gorge on the Clark Fork west of town, and man oh man was that a blast. Pictured here, front row, left to right: editor Brad Tyer, reporter Mara Silvers, reporter Alex Sakariassen. Middle: deputy director Kristin Tessman, director of audience engagement Nate Schoenfelder, intern Anna Ries-Roncalli, development manager Mallory Stefan, reporter Arren Kimbel-Sannit. Back: reporter Amanda Eggert, intern Keely Larson, deputy editor Eric Dietrich, membership and events manager Claire Overholt, executive director John Adams. Special thanks to Missoula Parks & Recreation for facilitating the trip.

Wildlife Watch 🐺

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Humane Society of the United States and the Sierra Club sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week to force the agency to make a timely determination whether gray wolves in the Northern Rockies should be relisted under the Endangered Species Act.

The groups originally petitioned USFWS to issue an emergency relisting on June 1, 2021.Three and a half months later, the agency determined on that emergency protections weren’t warranted, but did find that changes to wolf management in Idaho and Montana were significant enough to justify concerns about “increases in human-caused mortality.” That decision to explore relisting started a 12-month timer from the June 1 petition, though that timeline is slightly fuzzy as USFWS opted to combine the Center for Biological Diversity’s petition with a later petition, which was filed by 70 regional and national environmental groups on July 29, 2021.

Regardless which petition date is used, the agency has blown its 12-month deadline for finishing a “status review” of the species. The Center for Biological Diversity said that puts the agency in violation of the Endangered Species Act, and they’re asking the federal district court in Missoula to establish a binding deadline for determining whether relisting is appropriate.

The Center for Biological Diversity says measures passed in Montana and Idaho that expand the methods by which wolves can be killed jeopardize the animal’s recovery and demand urgent action.

In Montana, hunting with bait is now allowed, as is use of artificial lights and night vision scopes to hunt wolves on private land. Neck snares were also legalized by Montana lawmakers in 2021 and hunters using rifles as well as traps or snares can kill up to 20 wolves per season. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, hunters and trappers killed 273 wolves in Montana last season, which ended March 15. FWP estimates there were 1,144 wolves in the state at the end of 2021.

Idaho’s regulations don’t include daily or seasonal limits, and establish a year-round trapping season on private lands. Pursuing wolves with hounds, all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles is allowed.

“If federal action is not taken urgently, another deadly season of cruel, unregulated slaughter must leave us without much of a population to protect,” Center for Biological Diversity attorney Nicholas Arrivo said in an emailed release.

Gov. Greg Gianforte and Montana FWP have consistently called to keep management of wolves under state control.

“Montana has been effectively managing our wolf population for years, and we don’t need Washington coming in and second guessing our science-based approach,” Gianforte said in a September Facebook comment about the prospect of relisting.

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, the governor-appointed body charged with providing direction to FWP on wildlife and state park management, is scheduled to take up questions of quotas and regulations for the 2022-2023 wolf hunting and trapping seasons on Aug. 25.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

The Viz 📈

Montana’s fire season — so far at least — has been a low-burn affair by historical standards, charring a comparatively glancing 54,100 acres of the state to date, according to numbers from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

In a review of 2012’s fire season, the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region compared 2012 to 1910, which it called the worst fire season on record in Montana and Idaho. The Ash Creek Fire started burning June 25 that year near Lame Deer. It ultimately accounted for nearly a third of that year’s burned acreage. 

In 2017, the largest fire season on record in the past decade, the Lodgepole Complex, comprising four fires in Garfield and Petroleum counties, began on July 19. The last fire that year was Dec. 11. By the time the season concluded, approximately 1.3 million acres had burned — more than 23 times the acreage currently reported for this year’s season.

Of course, with the season-ending storms of winter still months away, the fire picture may still change — so stay tuned.

—Keely Larson, Reporter and Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

On Our Radar 

Amanda — You’ll want to settle in with a beverage for this deep dive into the conservation easement offerings that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parksadministers. It’s the most comprehensive analysis I’ve found of the state programs and political forces that could drive a change to FWP’s Habitat Montana program in the 2023 Legislature. Also interesting in light of how flush with cash that program is right now, given an increase in Pittman-Robertson funds allocated to the state.

Alex — Nothing beats a good Montana mystery story, and Flathead Living’s Justin Franz dropped a doozy of a resolution to one this week. His feature chronicles the discovery of human remains in northwest Montana in 2003, a local deputy coroner’s quest to identify those remains, and the email that shook loose an answer for a family left in limbo for nearly three decades.

Arren — The New York Times’ Jack Healy has a great piece Friday about a conflict between development interests and the free press in the “gilded” mountain West. Former staffers of the Aspen Times told NYT that the paper’s corporate owners blocked their own reporters from covering a libel lawsuit between the publication and a wealthy Russian real estate mogul developing a resort in the area. 

Eric — Ever wondered how the U.S. Postal Service deals with letters addressed with sloppy handwriting? YouTuber Tom Scott has a video out this week touring the facility where federal workers have the lovely job of trying to sort things out.

*Some articles may be behind a paywall.