Montana Free Press is taking an out-of-office holiday break Dec. 26-30. Instead of new stories, we’ll be publishing MTFP editors’ and reporters’ looks back at their most impactful, interesting, challenging, and just plain favorite stories of the past year. Today is Amanda Eggert’s turn.
MTFP’s environment beat is expansive, encompassing everything from wildfire to energy policy, but themes tend to emerge on a monthly and even yearly basis. This past year proved to be a particularly interesting year for wildlife- and water-related coverage.
We started off 2022 with a three-part series about wildlife crossings, structures designed to limit wildlife-vehicle collisions, an unfortunate — but not inevitable — feature of traveling state roadways that most Montanans know all too well. That series ended with a look at one of the state’s deadliest highways for animals: U.S. 191, which connects the burgeoning Gallatin County communities of Bozeman and Big Sky. Unfortunately, elk fatalities have continued to rack up on 191: according to Gallatin Gateway wildlife photographer Holly Pippel, at least 18 elk have been struck on a several-mile stretch of 191 this fall.
Elk management writ large was a prominent theme of my coverage this year as politicians, hunters, landowners and conservationists engaged in a tug-of-war attempt to balance the benefits of having the iconic ungulates on the landscape with the desires of landowners losing forage to them or seeking to profit from lucrative outfitted trophy hunts. If the 2021 legislative session provides a reliable forecast, the Montana Legislature is likely to become involved in the elk tag allocation process again in 2023.
Wolf management was similarly heated — a not-unexpected development given the volume of comments submitted to the Montana Legislature last year when it passed a handful of measures aimed at aggressively reducing wolf populations. The future of wolf management in Montana is still a live question at both the federal and state level. The U.S. government is considering a relisting petition while a Montana judge weighs a lawsuit arguing that state wildlife managers have violated the state’s Public Trust Doctrine of natural resource management in their season-setting process.
On the water front, one of the unexpected mega-stories of the year cropped up in mid-June when a convergence of climatic events created bridge-wrecking, community-inundating, house-displacing flooding on the Upper Yellowstone River. The whole MTFP newsroom pitched in to keep abreast of breaking news related to the rising waters, which closed much of Yellowstone National Park for most of the peak tourism season. On the upside, those massive quantities of water did help much of southern Montana pull out of a persistent drought, at least temporarily.
One of the big water quality related stories I enjoyed reporting in 2022 — if “enjoyed” is the right word — focused on Lake Koocanusa and the fate of a water quality standard aimed at reducing pollution flowing into the trans-boundary lake from a British Columbia mountaintop-removal coal mining operation. The selenium water quality standard popped up again in a story we published earlier this month about renewed efforts to nix it. It looks like the standard Montana regulators deemed protective of Montana waterways will hold, for now, though the state is facing considerable pressure from Teck Coal, which has big plans to expand its operation even as calls to tighten regulatory oversight of the company intensify.
I also wrote about a couple of issues that don’t have an obvious nexus with the environment, including a collaboration with my colleague Eric Dietrich about how Gov. Greg Gianforte’s “Come Home Montana” campaign collided with housing angst as Montanans grappled with some of the steepest real estate price increases in the country.
Finally, I worked my way through legal filings in two lawsuits alleging that the Gianforte administration has obstructed the right to know enshrined in the Montana Constitution — which celebrated a semi-centennial birthday earlier this year, incidentally — in its denial of government documents. Though the content in the documents sought by plaintiffs in those lawsuits presumably varies considerably (it’s hard to say without access to them), there’s a common thread in how the governor’s office responded to requests to view them, citing “executive privilege.”
Earlier this month, a Helena judge ordered Gianforte to turn over documents implicated in one of the lawsuits, a ruling that bodes favorably for a second lawsuit regarding the state’s decision to drop a “Bad Actor” claim against a former Pegasus Gold mining executive. The latter lawsuit is set for a hearing in Helena next month.
There’s no shortage of environmental news coming down the pike in 2023, and I look forward to staying on top of environmental issues old and new in the new year.