The MT Lowdown is a weekly digest that showcases a more personal side of Montana Free Press’ high-quality reporting while keeping you up to speed on the biggest news impacting Montanans. Want to see the MT Lowdown in your inbox every Friday? Sign up here.

It’s the end of a long week reentering the legislative session for its second half and reckoning with Montana’s loss of a journalism giant. I find myself grateful for our transmittal break event Wednesday evening, a live version of the collaborative podcast The Session, co-hosted by Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. The public’s questions were lively, the reporters’ answers were honest, and an hour-long online event on a cold midweek night flew by.

As a free and independent press, one of our jobs is to create a feedback loop between the government and the people who empower it. We relay the actions of lawmakers, the executive branch and the judiciary to the public, who can decide if they do or don’t approve of the actions their elected officials are taking on their behalf. When reporters aren’t present, that feedback loop is broken. The digital age has provided new avenues for us to do this, with virtual events like this week’s livestream and free tools like our Capitol Tracker.

We believe an informed citizenry makes for a healthy democracy. We know that in communities without a credible source of local news, voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and political, cultural and economic divisions between and within communities intensify. That’s why our reporters spend thousands of hours covering the legislative session. Our legislative coverage, which you’ll find on our homepage, in this Lowdown newsletter, and in our new twice-weekly legislative newsletter Capitolized, empower you with the information you need to ensure your representatives are representing you. 

So know that when you support Montana Free Press, you support democracy. We often hear from readers that our reporting makes a real impact on their lives, like this recent note that really stuck with us:

“Thanks for publishing Capitolized during the legislative session. It helps me organize who I’m going to write to and when.” —Stephanie, Big Arm, MT

When we say we produce journalism with impact, we mean impact like this: informed decision-making in action. Our journalism empowers citizens to hold their government accountable. 

It’s all part of a healthy democracy. But it doesn’t happen without the support of readers like you. We’re in the middle of our legislative season fundraising campaign and have a goal of raising $10,000 by March 14. 

Will you donate now to sustain us throughout this legislative session and beyond?

Yes, I’ll set up a monthly donation! 

Help us deliver the facts and speak truth to power.

Thank you, 

—John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief

P.S. — Thanks to a generous donor, all new recurring donations made by March 14 will be matched up to $1,000 total. Give today to have your donation doubled!

By the Numbers 🔢

Number of meals, as defined by the Office of Public Instruction, provided to K-12 public school students through Montana’s school nutrition programs during the 2021-22 school year. According to OPI, those meals were supported by $83 million in state and federal funding and included more than 13 million lunches, 7 million breakfasts and 32,000 snacks, as well as 22,894 cartons of milk reimbursed through a federal Special Milk Program. Based on enrollment numbers, the total works out to roughly 145 meals per student, at a per-student cost of $534.70. In presenting the numbers to the Board of Public EducationThursday, OPI School Nutrition Program Director Chris Emerson noted that the totals represent a “dramatic increase” in the number of meals served over the previous school year — an 18% rise in breakfasts and a 26% rise in lunches. Emerson attributed the increases to the fact that under federal COVID-19 waivers, meals were served at no cost to students, a situation that ended last fall.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Wildlife Watch 🦬

Central Montana’s Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, designated in red on this map of Montana’s federally managed wildlife refuges, is the second-largest wildlife refuge in the Lower 48 United States. Credit: Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

One of the state’s most prominent proxy wars — the agriculture-vs-wildlife debate playing out vis-a-vis bison — is again making the rounds in national and state policy circles. 

The Interior Department announced Friday, March 3, that it’s putting $25 million of Inflation Reduction Act funding toward bison restoration.

The agency described bison as a keystone species that is “inextricably intertwined with Indigenous culture, grassland ecology and American history.” It also said efforts to restore the once-abundant national mammal will contribute to healthy grasslands, which play an important role in climate change-mitigating carbon sequestration processes.

Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland further fleshed out her case in Order 3410, which lays out a framework for the department to work with tribes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service to advance bison restoration.

“The best science shows that returning bison to grasslands can enhance soil development, restore native plants and wildlife, and promote carbon sequestration, thereby providing benefits for agriculture, outdoor recreation, and Tribes. In addition, restoring bison and healthy grasslands can serve as a step toward national healing and reconciliation after centuries of federal policies designed to erase Native people and their cultures,” the order reads.

Those arguments don’t appear to resonate with Republicans in Montana, who argue that it’s up to state policymakers, not the federal government, to manage wildlife within Montana’s borders.

March 2, the day before the Interior Department’s announcement, the Montana Senate passed Senate Joint Resolution 14 opposing bison introduction at the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, a central Montana refuge managed by USFWS. It passed on party lines, 34-16.

The resolution argues that mixed ownership inside the CMR and an open range management style providing “no delineation between where federal land ends and state trust land begins” should dissuade the federal government from reintroducing bison on the CMR, the second-largest wildlife refuge in the Lower 48. Such an action would “threaten the livelihoods of ranching families,” the resolution says, and force costs associated with bison damage onto the state and landowners in and adjacent to the CMR.

A call to CMR Project Manager Paul Santavay for comment on the Interior Department’s March 3 announcement was not returned by press time Friday morning.

Tension over bison management is playing out in other arenas as well. Gov. Greg Gianforte, Attorney General Austin Knudsen and the Montana Stockgrowers Association announced in August that they’re appealing the BLM’s decision to expand bison grazing in central Montana. A year prior, thestate agreed not to explore bison management on state-managed lands for at least a decade as part of a settlement with United Property Owners of Montana.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

The Viz 📈

A couple of years back, longtime Montana reporter Chuck Johnson, whom we lost this week at age 74, sent me a spreadsheet he’d compiled detailing which political party had controlled the Montana House, Senate and governorship year-by-year over the course of the state’s history. Chuck being Chuck, it included figures stretching back nearly to statehood in 1889, painstakingly tallied and color-coded.

I played around some with sketching out different ways to visualize his data, but didn’t manage to get the project across the finish line in time for him to see it published. I dusted things off this week, adding data for this year’s legislative session.

While Republicans have had firm control of both chambers of the Montana Legislature for more than a decade, that hasn’t always been the case over Montana’s long history. Democrats controlled the Montana Senate and split the House with Republicans as recently as the 2005 Legislature, the first session with Democrat Brian Schweitzer in office as governor.

Democrats who are inclined to bemoan their party’s current political fortunes could take solace in the fact that the Legislature isn’t as Republican-dominated as it was in the 1920s. The 1921 House, for example, included 98 Republicans in its 108 seats. (The Legislature wasn’t set at its current size of 100 representatives and 50 senators until the passage of the state’s modern Constitution in 1972.)

Similarly, Republicans who expect their current dominance to remain a permanent fixture of Montana politics could also take a look at the history. By the mid-1930s, Democrats had surged back into power, controlling 81 of 102 seats in the 1937 House.

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

Photo Op 📸

Republican Montana congressman Matt Rosendale said this week that he didn’t know the identity of a group of neo-Nazi white supremacists when he posed for a picture with them between hearings in Washington, D.C. on March 1, as first reported by the Billings Gazette.

The photo, which began circulating on social media earlier this month, shows Rosendale with a group of four men — two of whom have been identified as Greyson Arnold, a neo-Nazi podcaster and former YouTuber who runs a popular Telegram channel, and Ryan Sanchez, a former member of the Nazi street-fighting gang Rise Above Movement. 

Both men are popular primarily on social media and streaming sites, where they are affiliated with Nick Fuentes, another high-profile white supremacist influencer who founded the America First Political Action Conference, an explicitly nationalist alternative to the comparatively mainstream Conservative Political Action Conference. 

“I absolutely condemn and have zero tolerance for hate groups, hate speech, and violence,” Rosendale told Montana Free Press in a statement provided by his office. “I did not take a meeting with these individuals. I was asked for a photo while walking between hearings, accommodating as I do for all photo requests, and was not aware of the individuals’ identity or affiliation with these hate groups that stand in stark contrast to my personal beliefs.”

Rosendale’s office did not respond to an additional question: whether the second-term U.S. representative, former state auditor and state legislator was concerned that people with such beliefs would seek him out for a photo op. 

Arnold, on Instagram, called Rosendale “a real America First representative with backbone.”

Rosendale is an arch-Republican and a member of the U.S. House Freedom Caucus who’s taken hardline stances on immigration and refugee resettlementin Montana in the past. Other Freedom Caucus members, like Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, have previously attended the America First Political Action Conference.

Rosendale voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election results early in his first term. 

In September 2021, Rosendale received $5,800 in campaign donations from Julie Fancelli, daughter of the founder of Florida-based Publix grocery stores and a major financial backer of the U.S. Capitol riots on Jan. 6, 2021. And while he voted in favor of an earlier version of the measure, Rosendale was ultimately among the 21 House Republicans who voted against giving congressional gold medals to the U.S. Capitol police, explaining through a spokesperson at the time that he felt the bill was “playing politics” with the events of Jan. 6. He’s since opposed a congressional investigation into the Capitol riot.

Rosendale has been pictured with right-wing extremists and militants before. In 2014, he spoke at an Oath Keepers event in Kalispell. The Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group, are led by Flathead County resident Stewart Rhodes, who was convicted of seditious conspiracy last year for his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. And in 2022, Rosendale’s Twitter account posted photos of the lawmaker visiting Hoplite Armor, a Montana body armor producer. The owner of the company, Lyman Bishop, has called for Montana to secede from the U.S. 

“The time has come. Your votes mean nothing. Secession or oppression,” Bishop wrote on the company’s website. 

Members of the Telegram channel Arnold administers openly call for national socialism in the U.S. and post racist and anti-Semitic memes and language. One user, responding to a post sharing the image of Rosendale, Arnold and Sanchez, questioned whether “Rosendale” is a Jewish name.

Democrats have attacked Rosendale for the image. 

“If you cannot tell the difference between a Nazi and not a Nazi, you have no business representing Montanans,” Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Sheila Hogan said in a press release this week. 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda — I’m continually impressed by Billings Gazette reporter Tom Lutey’s deep knowledge of energy and regulatory dynamics in the state. He showed that expertise again last week with this piece on the power plays at work in attempts to garner ownership of a transmission line proposed for eastern Montana. Three days after the story was published, the bill at issue, Senate Bill 353, was tabled in committee.

Alex — In the wake of his recent censure by the Montana Republican Party, former Republican Montana Gov. Marc Racicot spoke with the Flathead Beacon for a feature centered on his civic past and how he’s responded to the increased divisiveness of American politics.

Eric — I’m not entirely sure how he pulls it off, but this YouTube video of a guy wandering around his house with an infrared camera is somehow the most fascinating thing I’ve seen all week.

Arren — National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair and Republican Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines is looking to tap Bridger Aerospace CEO and former Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy to challenge Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, in 2024, according to reporting from Axios.

*Some stories may require a subscription. Subscribe!