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A big part of what we do here at MTFP is explaining what’s going on in the bubble of Helena’s state capital to bemused onlookers from the rest of the state. Understanding that scene well enough to explain it means our journalists, me included, have to live and breathe the air inside that bubble — rubbing shoulders with Montanans who spend their working lives deep in the gears of state government.
The fumes that waft off of the state’s political machinery are plenty strong, though. Often, they can go to your head. Helena is the sort of place where small talk at backyard barbecues as often as not ends up being gossip about the inner workings of some obscure state agency. It’s easy to forget that most Montanans have better things to discuss over their beer.
So I’ve learned to appreciate any chance I get to spend a bit of time outside the Helena bubble, chatting with folks who aren’t part of the political class. I find those conversations help me calibrate my news judgment, reminding me what non-politicos are looking for as we produce news about the policies and personalities that emerge from beneath the Capitol dome.
I was glad, then, to find myself in Great Falls earlier this week, helping with the last of a series of brewery happy-hour events Montana Free Press has hosted in cities across the state this summer. Those happy hours, organized by MTFP’s Membership and Events Manager Claire Overholt, were designed to get our staff out listening to Montanans, to give us time to close our laptops and turn off our cell phones and meet our readers face to face.
As Claire points out, we’re a primarily digital news outlet, which can mean we face an uphill battle to prove we’re worth your trust given everything that happens on the Internet these days. The happy hours, she notes, were a chance for us to climb that hill by reaching readers where they’re at — an opportunity for us to be more than just an email list.
Thanks again to those of you who made time to chat with us these last few months. Keep an eye out for more opportunities to meet up with our staff going forward, and by all means feel free to say hello electronically, too. Your emails are always a breath of fresh air.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
On Sept. 10, 2022, in Helena, Julie Yard strolls through Montana Book Co. during a portrait session. Yard, a member of the Great Falls-based Mister Sisters drag trio, is a central character in “The LGBTQ Bookstore that Rallied a Community,” which MTFP co-published with The Guardian this week.
Following the Law ⚖️
After a jam-packed few weeks in the legal fight over birth certificate changes for transgender Montanans, the last few days have been more quiet — but not entirely without development.
To recap: a Billings judge earlier this month reiterated, quite forcefully, that Montana’s state health department should be operating under the more lenient 2017 rule for letting people change the listed sex on their birth certificate. In fact, Judge Michael Moses said, the department should have been operating under that standard since April, when he temporarily blocked the more restrictive Senate Bill 280 and told the state to revert to the “status quo” — read: the 2017 rule — while the lawsuit over the bill’s constitutionality continued.
Instead of reinstating the older rule after SB 280 was sidelined, the department, now led by Gov. Greg Gianforte’s former health adviser Charlie Brereton, adopted a wholly new and even more rigid rule regarding birth certificates in September. That iteration made it nearly impossible for anyone to update their listed sex, based on the health department’s stated premise that sex is a “biological concept” that cannot be changed by gender-affirming surgery, gender identity, or any other means.
After initially digging in their heels, health department leaders said last week they would reimplement the 2017 rule (perhaps because Moses threatened contempt charges if they didn’t). That is now apparently happening — two applicants told Montana Free Press the health department has contacted them with the 2017-era materials to begin the process of amending their listed sex.
Despite that begrudging adjustment, the health department last week signaled it is not content to let the litigation run its course with the 2017 rule in place. In a Friday filing, the state asked the Montana Supreme Court to take over the case, arguing the district court “lacks the authority” to make DPHHS revert to the older rule after it just properly created a new one. Having two conflicting rules in play, state attorneys argued, puts the health department “in a legally and factually impossible position.”
When reviewing this kind of appeal, the Montana Supreme Court essentially has three options: approve or deny the request outright, or ask for more information from the party challenging the law. On Thursday, the higher court said it was going with route No. 3: It asked attorneys from the ACLU of Montana, representing two transgender plaintiffs, to reply to the state’s arguments within 20 days. The court’s order also said it would take the state’s request to block Moses’ most recent order “under advisement” pending further review of the case.
As always, we’re looking forward to keeping you up to date as the case moves along. Be sure to check out the new files uploaded to our Laws On Trial database — at the district court and Supreme Court levels — if you’d like to read the arguments for yourself.
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
Wildlife Watch 🐺
A Facebook post that circulated widely on social media last weekend — featuring a Flathead Valley woman posing with a skinned animal she’d shot — drew national attention, with outlets like The Guardian, National Public Radio and tabloid website TMZ picking up the story this week.
It appears the hunter mistook a domestic dog — likely a husky — for a wolf while hunting for black bear in the Doris Creek area of the Flathead National Forest.
The post, authored by someone appearing on Facebook as “Amber Rose,” included five photos of a woman posing with a dead animal along with the following text: “So this morning I set out for a solo predator hunt for a fall black bear however I got the opportunity to take another predator wolf pup 2022 was a great feeling to text my man and say I just smoked a wolf pup #firstwolf #onelesspredatorMT.”
Concerned Reddit and Twitter users who’d seen screenshots of the Facebook post asked Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office to investigate, suspecting that the woman had killed a breed of domestic dog rather than a wolf.
County Sheriff Brian Heino indicated that the animal appears to be one of more than a dozen husky- or shepherd-mix puppies someone had abandoned in the area in the preceding days.
According to a Wednesday morning story in the Missoulian, the sheriff’s office and Flathead County Attorney Travis Ahner are coordinating on the investigation, but no charges had yet been filed.
Heino said his office was alerted to the animal abandonment issue last Friday. Eleven dogs were turned over to animal control and later taken to an animal shelter, Heino said in a Monday morning press release, which also noted that the dogs aren’t presently available for adoption. Heino said his office is collecting information about the incident and asked the public to help by emailing information to email@example.com.
In that Wednesday story, FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon said the department was also looking into the matter and that FWP’s investigation is focused on ascertaining whether any wildlife-related crimes or illegal hunting occurred. Lemon said the hunter in question did possess both wolf and black bear tags.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
The Butte-Silver Bow County Democratic Central Committee last weekend appointed Jennifer Lynch to run for Butte’s House District 73 seat this year, replacing candidate Art Noonan, who died of a heart attack last week at 70.
Lynch, a school teacher and negotiation chairperson for the Butte Teachers’ Union, is the daughter of late Butte Democratic lawmaker and lobbyist J.D. Lynch. She’s now running against Republican Jason Freeman in a race that has historically proved an easy win for Democrats, who have held all three of Butte’s House seats since 2014.
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter
By the Numbers 🔢
Books shipped to Montana classrooms through the online crowdfunding nonprofit DonorsChoose as of Sept. 29. Over the past two decades, the nonprofit has become a popular avenue for public school teachers across the country to secure supplies for their students. At Missoula’s Lewis and Clark Elementary, Jordan Garland used DonorsChoose to revamp her classroom library and obtain flexible seating for her fifth-graders in 2021, and is currently crowdfunding a project to introduce self-guided tactile learning to her classroom’s morning routine.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — Starting next month, NorthWestern Energy customers should prepare for significant increases in their monthly bills, per the Public Service Commission’s unanimous decision on Tuesday to allow the state’s largest monopoly utility to collect an additional $92 million for gas and electricity service from customers.
Alex — Over the past few weeks, I’ve slowly been chipping my way through NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz’s new book, “The Stolen Year.”Kamenetz not only takes a heart-wrenching look at the personal impact of the pandemic’s first year on students, parents and teachers, but packs in an intense amount of history on how America’s public education system became what it was before COVID-19 hit.
Eric — I learned this week that the world record for stone skipping is (really!) a whopping 88 skips. Outside magazine has a deeply personal feature on the man who made that throw, Kurt Steiner.
Arren — Cascade County “constitutional” Sheriff Jesse Slaughter broke up a joint firearms investigation between Canadian and U.S. federal officials at a Great Falls gun show because the agencies didn’t let his office know first, per the Montana State News Bureau’s Seaborn Larson.
Mara — ProPublica this week published an astonishing investigation about families in New Mexico navigating the steep personal costs of applying for child support. It got my gears turning, to say the least. How much of this — bartering for private information, governments pocketing child support payments for reimbursement — might be happening in Montana?
*Some articles may be behind a paywall.