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.
Above my desk in the MTFP office in Helena, I taped a handwritten note to the wall some years back:
We’re here to explain Montana to Montanans.
The hardest part of doing that well? Truly knowing the myriad ins and outs of our 94-million-acre state. After all, it’s difficult to explain things you don’t understand.
Which brings me to where I spent the last week of June — working out of the Bitterroot Star newsroom in Stevensville, my part of a new summer initiative where MTFP is placing our reporters in residence outside of our usual haunts for a week at a time.
Stevi isn’t particularly remote in the grand scheme of Montana. It’s only 30 minutes south of Missoula, the cultural epicenter of the state’s journalism scene. Its well-stocked Main Street (brewery, distillery, coffee shops, a hardware store) is only a couple of minutes off U.S. 93, the north-south arterial that shuffles 13,000 vehicles a day through the Bitterroot Valley.
The town isn’t, however, a place I personally happen to know well. Before this summer, I’d been through Stevi just once, at the conclusion of a bike-mounted brewery tour launched from Missoula (suffice it to say that wasn’t an experience that taught me much about the local civic fabric).
As a journalist, that type of ignorance always makes filing a story from a new place a bit scary. Who among us hasn’t rolled their eyes at some national news story about Montana that displayed an obliviousness to facts that would have been laughably obvious to any local?
But it’s our job to understand and explain this state — all of it, whether or not it’s part of our comfort zone. So off to Stevi I went, determined to put my ear to the ground as firmly as possible.
I toured a local firearms factory and visited with some folks who run an organic farm south of town (meeting some very friendly dogs at both). I talked with some locals promoting an anti-property tax initiative. I sampled every sandwich shop I saw. I wandered around several history museums and an antique mall.
I spent quite a bit of time chatting with the staff at the Star, who know the valley as well as anyone does. I spent a few hours one afternoon at the county courthouse down in Hamilton, sifting through court dockets to see how locals’ lives have tangled with the justice system.
After hours, I spent quite a bit of time walking the Main Streets and neighborhoods of Stevi and the surrounding towns, trying to absorb the character of the valley through the sights and sounds of summer evenings. One evening, I wandered around a wildlife refuge along the Bitterroot River, fending off mosquitos.
As much as I learned, I missed a lot. Despite my best efforts at a crash course, there’s no substitute for time when it comes to local knowledge, the sort that really helps you grasp how a community ticks — who its people are and how they live their lives and what sorts of stories they need journalists writing.
I am, however, at least a touch less ignorant now about that corner of the state. I’ve met a few of the local movers and shakers. I’ve learned a bit about the Bitterroot’s history and a bit more about its current issues. And I’ve watched some summer rainstorms roll through the valley.
There’s certainly more to know about that slice of western Montana, as is always true about anywhere. But I’ll call my residency a decent start, and one I’m grateful for.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
“Two years ago, we set out to climb a high mountain, and together we came to a fork in the road. Election night of ’22 is not the end of our journey.”
—Democratic Missoula attorney Monica Tranel this week announcing another bid for Congress.
3 Questions For
In late June, state Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, was elected executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, a federation of 38 unions in a variety of trades and professions.
His election is significant for at least two reasons. Small, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, is one of the first Indigenous people to lead the AFL-CIO in Montana. And while the executive secretary spot is non-partisan — so it’s hard to say this definitively — he also appears to be the first Republican to hold the job. Small, a comparatively moderate pro-labor member of the GOP, came to the Legislature in 2017 and said he plans to finish the interim duties of his current Senate term.
(Incidentally, this will forestall any official lobbying Small does on behalf of the union as the state’s revolving-door law forbids lawmakers and other state officials from acting as a lobbyist until 24 months after the end of their government service).
MTFP caught up with Small in Helena this week to discuss the significance of his election and his goals for the labor movement. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
MTFP: What’s your background in the trades and organized labor?
Small: I’ve been around it my whole life. My mom was a United Mine Workers union member; she was secretary for their local at one point. Probably the week I turned 18, I got a job as a union laborer. I did that for several years, got into the boilermakers union, started an apprenticeship, worked my way through that, up through the ranks, and I was president of the (IBB Local 11) for a while. All said and done, I think I got about 25 years, 26 years in the union. I’ve always been a worker advocate.
MTFP: It looks like you’re one of the first Republicans to be elected secretary in Montana. What do you think the significance of that is, both to you personally and to the movement?
Small: I’m glad that people don’t see me as an issue — and they see me as beneficial to the cause, even though I’m not the same as everyone else politically. A lot of folks feel like it’s a big Democrat organization, and it really necessarily isn’t. It’s a non-partisan, pro-worker type deal. We should be finding our best candidate no matter where they’re sitting. And in the past couple years, they’ve been endorsing some Republicans in races, and I’d like to keep up with that — trying to get the best candidate we can in every area. And get to where we’re recognized across the board. We have a lot to offer — 500 locals, 38 unions, and every one is an opportunity for someone to get a good paying job, benefits, retirement, make a good living. The first meeting I had with the staff, I said, “I think we need to keep our eye on the ball, not get distracted by all the peripherals.” And I think the eye on the ball is getting good pro-labor people, good legislation and protecting our work and our wellbeing.
MTFP: What do you see as the labor movement’s priorities as they relate to the tribes in Montana?
Small: When I was growing up, pretty much all the work on the reservations was union. Ironworkers, laborer’s. And that’s changed over the years. That’s unfortunate. When union trades were doing work on the reservations, they were accruing benefits, insurance, retirement. I’d like to see that again, some of these younger folks on the reservation leave them with something at the end, not just a paycheck today. The labor movement in general, we need more participation. We need to start developing a name again. We need to start interacting with these younger kids. The state’s dumped a bunch of money into work-based learning, and we need to capitalize on that opportunity as unions. And we need to keep doing what we’re doing, trying to help workers and families and pay attention to the legislation that’s not beneficial to Montana workers.
Wildlife Watch 🐻
State wildlife officials this week confirmed the presence of grizzly bears in two regions of the state where the federally protected carnivores haven’t been seen for decades.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said on Tuesday that biologists confirmed that a grizzly was recently spotted in the Pryor Mountains of southeastern Montana. There hasn’t been a confirmed sighting of a grizzly bear in that area since they were eradicated from that region of the state in the late 1800s.
The following day brought news that a young grizzly was spotted in the Shields River Valley, between Interstate 90 and Clyde Park. Clyde Park is an agricultural community in northern Park County.
Neither bear has gotten into conflict with people, according to FWP. Former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator Chris Servheen said the Pryor Mountains bear likely wandered northeast from the Yellowstone region and the Shields Valley bear is just as likely to have ambled south from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem as it is to have wandered north from Yellowstone. Genetic analysis of a hair sample, which the bear left behind in a barbed-wire fence, will lend more insight.
FWP spokesperson Morgan Jacobsen said that sightings are indicative of an expanding grizzly bear presence in Montana. He urged recreationists and residents to assume their presence in the state and prepare by taking proactive measures. Such actions include securing attractants such as garbage, bird feeders and chicken coops, carrying bear spray while recreating and knowing how to use it, and avoiding recreating in areas where grizzlies have been spotted recently.
Servheen said subadult males are prone to traveling widely. These bears were doing their “teenage bear thing,” he said, adding that their presence shouldn’t be cause for alarm.
“This is good,” he told MTFP. “It’s good to see these native animals on the landscape. Most of these subadult males will probably go back and not get into conflict.”
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
By the Numbers 🔢
The collapsed bridge is located between Reed Point and Columbus. A 3.5-mile stretch of river surrounding the compromised bridge is closed to the public as crews rebuild it with the goal of having it operational in weeks rather than months, according to a press release from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Approximately 100 personnel have been traveling the Yellowstone and collecting the once-molten asphalt, which has been found as far downstream as Pompeys Pillar, east of Billings.
According to a spokesperson from the EPA, five birds and three snakes have died as a result of the spill. Members of the public who encounter wildlife befouled with the liquid asphalt, which is made with the heavier components of crude oil, are encouraged to contact the Oiled Wildlife Care Network Response Hotline at 888-275-6926. Landowner claims and reports of asphalt should be reported to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Officials estimate as much as 500,000 pounds of asphalt may have spilled into the Yellowstone as a result of the incident.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
Following the Law ⚖️
Late last month, a trio of legal briefs were filed with the Montana Supreme Court — responses from the plaintiffs in Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen’s appeal over four now-blocked 2021 election laws. The filings laid out lengthy counter-arguments on the part of the Montana Democratic Party, tribal stakeholders and youth engagement organizations supporting a lower court’s determination in September 2022 that the laws are unconstitutional.
Much of the early back and forth between Jacobsen and the plaintiffs centers on the level of legal scrutiny that Yellowstone County District Court Judge Michael Moses applied to measures that ended same-day voter registration, barred paid ballot collection and implemented stricter voter ID requirements. Rejecting Jacobsen’s position that such laws were necessary to combat voter fraud and safeguard the integrity of Montana elections, the Democratic Party and its cohorts maintained what they’ve been arguing from the start: that the 2021 Legislature’s actions infringed on Montanans’ right to vote and, as such, deserved the rigorous scrutiny that Moses brought to bear.
The appeal also resurfaces a fourth law absent during the lower court’s nine-day trial last year. Moses struck down House Bill 506 early on, determining that the law preventing county officials from sending absentee ballots to minors who would turn 18 on or before Election Day “impermissibly denies this subgroup access to an avenue of voting” available to others. Jacobsen has rebuffed that conclusion. Meanwhile, the youth plaintiffs in the case continue to argue that lawmakers passed “the worse of two options” to achieve its ends in HB 506, rejecting a “nondiscriminatory” version and making absentee ballot distribution more complicated for election workers.
Jacobsen’s appeal has also drawn two entries in recent weeks from groups expressing support for the plaintiffs. The first came in the form of a June brief from the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the state’s largest union, which filed its own 2021 legal challenge against the termination of same-day registration in Cascade County District Court. The second was a request to appear in the case filed by a coalition of 10 state constitution and election law scholars from law schools around the country — Columbia, NYU, the University of Texas and Arizona State, to name a few. In it, those scholars voiced a desire to present the court with information about the “underlying democratic principles” that embody the Montana Constitution, noting that the case involves “important constitutional questions” in which they’re well schooled.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
You wouldn’t know it from this pretty photo taken recently by Justin Franz, but Flathead Lake is precariously low, causing all sorts of issues for boaters and businesses. Franz’s story reports about the drought that is impacting much of northwest Montana this summer.
On Our Radar
Amanda — A year ago, I got to write about something that’s long fascinated me: whether people should attempt to spare species from extinction by proactively moving them into habitat deemed more suitable to their survival. Late last month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cast a “yes” vote to that question.
Alex — High Country News published a fascinating piece this week about a behavioral ecologists’ research into elk bugles, which showed the familiar ungulates actually have distinct dialects in different regions of the country — not unlike whales and birds.
Eric — Worried about the national debt? The Washington Post editorial board has been publishing a series of columns to lay out a plan it thinks could stabilize the federal budget. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, you’ll probably find something in there you hate.
Arren — The desires of some companies to remain anonymous in their comments about how Montana should allocate federal broadband money is raising some constitutional questions, per the Daily Montanan’s Nicole Girten.
Bowman — As communities grapple with how to protect against wildfire, a former logging town in southern Oregon decided to buy surrounding timberlands and manage them for old growth — creating a buffer to slow future fires while boosting tourism. The Inside Climate News story paints a hopeful picture of how three community members are addressing climate and reimagining the town’s economy.
*Some stories may require a subscription. Subscribe!