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.

I’m not sure if my editor believes me, but I didn’t go to Ekalaka last weekend looking for a story. I made the drive out to the southeast Montana town of 400 to visit some old friends who run the county museum there and lend them a hand as they put on their annual dinosaur festival.

I’ve written in the past about the (I think) pretty great stuff they get up to out there. This year, though, I told myself, my seven-and-a-half-hour drive out to eastern Montana was going to be just a weekend social trip.

Then someone showed me the latest edition of the local paper, the Ekalaka Eagle. The editor had published a front-page picture of a Tesla Model Y — or, as he labeled it, an “unidentified electric vehicle” — plugged into an unattended utility outlet on Main Street.

In a caption, the Eagle mused that this might be a historic moment for the remote community: the first time anyone had charged an electric car in town. The paper also noted that it was unclear whether the vehicle’s owners — who, as it turned out, were a pair of fellow museum volunteers who’d driven up from Los Angeles not knowing where they might find the electricity to drive out again — had actually paid for their power consumption.

I won’t spoil the rest of the story (which you can read in full here), but suffice it to say my colleagues in the MTFP newsroom pretty forcefully informed me I would in fact be writing a dispatch out of Ekalaka again this year.

I grumbled a bit, but without, in retrospect, much reason. We do a lot of Very Serious Journalism here at MTFP, and it’s frankly a breath of fresh air to do a story about a situation where big city things collide with rural Montana things in a way that seems to have produced unadulterated joy for everyone involved.

Anyway, and very seriously, I think that story is very much worth your time.

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

Say Again? 🤔

“[T]his estimate is likely to be too high.”

—Montana Department of Revenue Director Brendan Beatty, writing in an op-ed column published by the Billings Gazette that the estimated property tax numbers included on reappraisal notices sent to hundreds of thousands of Montana property owners by the department in June don’t accurately represent what homeowners should expect on their November tax bill. Those estimates, which said taxes would rise proportionately rising property values — a 46% median increase for residential properties — sparked widespread anxiety on the part of homeowners and near-universal critique from local government leaders and tax experts.

Beatty wrote that the department’s estimate methodology, which uses each property’s prior year tax rate and newly estimated property value, provides a reasonable “ballpark” figure for new tax rates in reappraisal cycles where the state sees modest changes in property value. Given this year’s “huge” value increase, however, he acknowledged that, absent voter-approved increases for projects like new school buildings, local governments will probably be able to fund their budgets with lower tax rates.

MTFP asked a revenue department spokesman this week why the department produced the estimates with a methodology it now admits is flawed, particularly given that it has produced at least one analysis projecting lower residential tax increases at the county level. In a written statement provided by Communications Director Jason Slead, department officials said they didn’t have the information they needed to calculate better estimates because tax burdens vary city by city even within counties. They also said they thought leaving estimates off the forms entirely would have produced its own wave of outrage:

“Because we have been providing this information since 2016, if we had intentionally left this calculation off with these higher valuations, the public would have thought we were trying to hide the fact that the higher valuations may have an impact on their taxes,” the department wrote.

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

Wildlife Watch 🎣

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has enacted an emergency regulation for the lower stretches of the Bitterroot River after officials this week announced the “first confirmed smallmouth bass in the Bitterroot.” The department is asking anglers who catch the species to keep it, kill it, and report the catch.

Fisheries biologists are trying to keep smallmouth out of the Bitterroot to prevent the non-native fish from preying on and displacing native species.

“Smallmouth bass are a predatory and adaptable species and could have a long-term impact to this cold-water fishery,” the department said in a July 26 release. Though department personnel found no additional smallmouth bass when they surveyed the Bitterroot after the initial report, they’ve concluded that the river is suitable habitat for smallmouth to establish and sustain a population. 

The closest populations are in drainages dozens of river miles away, namely the Clark Fork below Saint Regis, which is 80 miles downstream, and the Clearwater River system, about 70 miles upstream. The smallmouth that was reported in the Bitterroot was found 3.5 miles upstream of the river’s confluence with the Clark Fork near Missoula.

In February of last year, an angler caught a smallmouth bass in another unexpected cold-water fishery, the Gardner River, which flows into the Upper Yellowstone River. 

After that incident, FWP noted that it’s illegal to move live fish from one water body to another without prior authorization from FWP. 

The introduction of smallmouth, which are native to the midwest, has proven problematic for fisheries in other parts of the country, including other parts of the Columbia River Basin, where researchers have implicated their introduction in the decline of Pacific salmon, for example, and warn that climate change is expected to expand suitable habitat for the species.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Fire Lookout 🔥

Montana’s fire season kicked off in earnest last weekend when two lightning-sparked fires spread quickly. This week, two more fires developed in western and southeast Montana.

The Colt Fire, located 15 miles northwest of Seeley Lake, has grown to 5,252 acres as of Friday morning. After slowing down Tuesday thanks to lower temperatures and reduced winds, the fire has since increased by 862 acres. More than 500 personnel are currently assigned to the fire — more than double the resources working any other fire in the Northern Rockies Geographic Area right now — and as of Thursday, burning operations had “progressed well” on the fire’s east flank along Forest Road 646, the primary fire control line, according to a Friday morning release from the incident management team. The Colt Fire is now 3% contained and fire activity is expected to be low-moderate heading into the weekend. 

The Bowles Creek Fire, burning in both the Bitterroot and Beaverhead-Deer Lodge national forests, is estimated at 1,698 acres and is 0% contained. 

Lightning on Monday ignited the Big Knife Fire, which is actively burning on steep slopes 5 miles east of Arlee. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Division of Fire estimates the Big Knife Fire at 415 acres and 0% contained. 

The Hay Draw Fire, a grass fire discovered Tuesday morning near Broadus in southeast Montana, is now 100% contained and has burned 3,701 acres. 

Thunderstorms are expected to roll through southwest Montana on Friday afternoon and evening, possibly becoming severe. Slightly cooler temperatures will help slow overnight fire activity and the drying of larger woody fuels, but live fuels could still support fire growth due to recent high temperatures. 

On Saturday, July 29, at 12:01 a.m., stage 1 fire restrictions will go into effectacross northwest Montana. Those restrictions prohibit building, maintaining, attending, or using a fire or campfire and smoking outdoors, unless inside a vehicle or in a designated smoking area cleared of flammable materials.  

You can track Montana’s fire-and-smoke scene with MTFP’s Montana Fire Report

—Bowman Leigh, Fire Reporting Intern

Verbatim 💬

“There’s no end date on this in sight at this point. We want to do this right.”

Montana Department of Environmental Quality Deputy Director James Fehr, describing cleanup efforts to remove molten — or formerly molten — asphalt that entered the Yellowstone River when 10 railcars of a Montana Rail Link train plunged into the river last month.

Fehr described the incident and its aftermath to members of the Environmental Quality Council during the group’s July 26 meeting. In addition to working with partner agencies and Montana Rail Link on the cleanup, DEQ will be preparing an enforcement action, Fehr said. That’s expected to include a penalty (i.e., fine) and requirements for future sampling. Measures to mitigate environmental damages could be included in the enforcement action as well. Nine birds and seven snakes are known to have died as a result of the accident, according to a press release issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday.

Rail traffic was restored over the reconstructed bridge last Saturday, and FWP announced yesterday that a 3.5-mile stretch of the Yellowstone immediately upstream and downstream of the bridge will reopen to public recreation this Saturday, July 29. Twin Bridge Road, which accesses the railway bridge and is operated by the Montana Department of Transportation, will remain closed to the public.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Number of Montanans who lost Medicaid coverage during the first two months — April and May — of the state health department’s mass redetermination process. That’s roughly half, or 47%, of the total number of enrollees reviewed so far. But here’s the catch: In those two months, about two-thirds of the people who lost coverage did so because of their failure to return required paperwork to the health department on time. In total, 13,748 of the people who have lost coverage have been children.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

Public Comment 🗣️

As Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy suggested during a chat with Montana Free Press last week, the legislative process often stretches well beyond the 90 days of a single session. Take one of the Box Elder Democrat’s own policy wins from 2023, House Bill 287. The measure passed with strong bipartisan support, and was signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte. But in order to make good on what HB 287 set out to do — improve and enhance Montana’s tribal language preservation efforts— the state Office of Public Instruction has to adopt a new slate of administrative rules implementing the law.

That particular phase kicked off July 21, and affords Montanans another opportunity to weigh in on a decade-old commitment to correcting the injustices of the past. The Montana Indian Language Preservation Program, or MILP, directs roughly $750,000 per year to tribal nations in support of work preserving their respective languages. HB 287 seeks to bring more transparency and accountability to the program, strengthening partnerships between tribal entities and public schools and ensuring Montana is able to collect adequate data on the progress of those efforts. 

Windy Boy and other preservation advocates stressed to MTFP last week just how critical building a new cadre of fluent tribal language speakers is to safeguarding the cultural identity of Montana’s Indigenous peoples. They noted, too, that continuing to offer tribal members a voice in the process is an important part of making sure the goals of HB 287 are fully realized. Those voices and others now have until Aug. 18 to review the rules OPI has drafted to make that happen and articulate their support, their criticism and their concerns. The proposed rules can be read in the Montana Administrative Register, and OPI is soliciting feedback via email at The agency has also scheduled a public hearing for Aug. 11 at its offices in Helena, with an option to participate remotely. Check out last week’s press release for address details and a Zoom link.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda — My favorite news program, hands down, is NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. Listening to it with coffee is a favorite Saturday morning tradition. Scorching temps across much of the U.S. and Italy this week brought to mind Simon’s opinion piece from last July asking if “menacing” summer heat might change how children contemplate summer.

Alex — EducationWeek recently revisited a moment from Montana’s 2023 legislative session to illustrate how misinformation has led to widespread public confusion over what social-emotional learning in public schools actually looks like. It’s a practice that’s been employed, in some form or fashion, in all 50 states, and one that school leaders are increasingly trying to set the record straight about.

Arren — As MTFP’s resident Arizonan, I’ll be the bearer of bad news: The West is sizzling, as High Country News puts it, from Portland, Oregon, to Phoenix, Arizona.  

Bowman — I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this Hakai Magazine storyabout Icelanders using cod skin for human skin grafts. Not only does the main character look like a real-life Aquaman, but the story also explores a surprising new angle to minimizing food waste. 

Mara — ProPublica and Mississippi Today partnered up to report on a too-frequent phenomenon in Mississippi’s criminal legal system: people being held in jail without charges while they await a mental health evaluation. This companion article is also worth a read for more historical insight into why most states, including Montana, have moved away from that practice in recent decades.  

Eric — Ekalaka Eagle editor Eric Lovec published a follow-up of his own to this week’s “unidentified electric vehicle” saga, including a couple of lovely details my reporting didn’t catch. You can read it here

*Some stories may require a subscription. Subscribe!