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We wrote an awful lot this week about things Attorney General Austin Knudsen recently said on the radio. We hadn’t planned to spend so much time fact-checking a single public official, but Knudsen’s claims were coming to light fast and furiously. 

MTFP reporter Alex Sakariassen had already spent weeks seeking what we initially expected to be a simple clarification of on-air remarks Knudsen made during a July call-in show. There, he implied that his Department of Justice is investigating allegations of voter misconduct in one or more Montana elections and being stymied in those effort(s) by uncooperative county election administrator(s). 

That would be big news if it were true — but there’s no evidence that it is, and lots of evidence it isn’t. Still, we wanted to give Knudsen’s office the opportunity to support the claim. But when they eventually told us last week that clarifying his comments “is not something we have time to do for you,” we concluded the assertion, plus the refusal to confirm or clarify it, is significant news too. 

Then another story — essentially the same story — came across our radar. On July 31, Knudsen had told Montanans, on a different radio program, that the state’s Planned Parenthood chapter could be abetting human trafficking by not reporting suspected sexual assault against minors to law enforcement. That also would be big news if it’s true. This time Knudsen’s communications team was willing to make its case when MTFP reporter Mara Silvers asked for evidence. You can judge the merits of their response for yourself.

And then we heard Knudsen, again on the radio, responding Aug. 15 to his office’s recent legal loss in the Held v. Montana case, where Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ruled in favor of youth plaintiffs who challenged the state’s alleged inaction on climate change. 

Knudsen panned the verdict, casting the plaintiffs as “rich, privileged white kids” represented by “rich, out-of-state liberal interests,” all of whom supposedly benefitted from appearing before a “radical leftist” judge. He also called out the courtroom decorum of plaintiffs’ supporters as “such an absolute mockery of the justice system” that “people should have been sent to jail for contempt.”

Another of the attorney general’s opinions, apparently, is that the jury is still out on man-made global warming. Seeley, in Knudsen’s opinion, wrongfully struck down a 2023 Republican law excluding climate consideration from state permitting decisions because: “She said, ‘No, that’s unconstitutional, because I, in my black-robed wonderfulness, hereby deign [sic] that global warming is real.’”

Knudsen, the state’s top lawyer, begs to differ. 

“You know, according to settled science,” he told listeners, “mankind didn’t exist 10,000 years ago, and yet the Earth went through a rapid, rapid climate change that’s been relatively stable for 10,000 years. When you look long lens, the climate really hasn’t changed since about 10,000 years ago. So I don’t think it is settled science.”

That may be Knudsen’s opinion, but it’s one that his own lawyers weren’t willing to make at trial. “There is scientific consensus that the Earth is warming,” Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell said during the state’s brief closing arguments. “These facts, therefore, are not at issue.”

A thing that happens once is a dot. Twice defines a line. Three times makes a trend. 

Montana’s attorney general is telling a story to his constituents — and we are all his constituents — in which many of his political and legal opponents are radical wrongdoers and untrustworthy conspirators. He’s making that case in venues that either can’t or won’t fact-check his assertions. And we’ll keep reporting those stories, because we think you should have a chance to judge their merits for yourself.

—Brad Tyer, Editor

Say What? 🤔

It’s imperative that we talk about these challenging issues. Let’s talk about boys in girls bathrooms and that safety issue. Let’s talk about those litter boxes that some schools are putting out for children who want to view themselves as some sort of an animal. Is this where public education should be? I say no.”
State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, speaking about culture war issues in public schools during an Aug. 15 interview on Voices of Montana radio.

Over the past two years, Republican lawmakers and parental rights activists throughout the country have claimed that certain schools offered litter boxes for students who identified as cats — an allegation wielded in the broader debate over school policies that support students who are exploring their gender identities. School officials have routinely debunked such claims, prompting retractions from podcast host Joe Rogan and from a conservative state lawmaker in Nebraska. The nonprofit education news outlet EdWeek characterized the claims as a “disruptive and demeaning hoax.”

During the interview with Voices of Montana host Tom Schultz, Arntzen, who is exploring a run for Montana’s eastern district congressional seat, said explicitly that the controversy has become an issue in the public school system she oversees:

Schultz: “Do we have evidence of litter boxes in Montana schools?”

Arntzen: “Yes sir.”

Schultz: “Okay. Looking into it?”

Arntzen: “Of course we are.”

MTFP followed up with the Office of Public Instruction for more details. According to government liaison Tara Boulanger, Arntzen’s statements were based on claims made to her by Montana citizens during community forums and radio interviews in December 2022, as well as a report to OPI by a “rural Montana community member who requested to remain anonymous.” Asked if Arntzen or the agency had substantiated any of those allegations, Boulanger replied, “The reports were not investigated because no formal complaints were filed.” 

Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, said his organization is unaware of “any instance whatsoever where any school district in the state has contemplated doing this.” He added that the association fields “in excess of 7,000 calls” per year from districts requesting legal advice, saying the only mention he recalled of litter boxes occurred two years ago. The association, he said, advised the inquiring district that state law makes no reference to protections for students seeking such access. 

As for the suggestion that any districts in Montana currently offer litter boxes to students, Melton said, “It’s just ludicrous.”

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Public Comment 🗣️

The interbranch commission set up to mend Montana’s fragmented behavioral health and disabilities services system, spearheaded by Republican lawmakers and the Gianforte administration’s public health department, is picking up steam. The group’s first meeting was in July and the hiring process for a multimillion dollar contractor to wrangle the reform effort is underway. Additionally, subcommittees tasked with proposing how to treat people in settings outside the troubled Montana State Hospital are meeting left and right.

Lawmakers and other members of the Behavioral Health System for Future Generations Commission have repeatedly expressed the value of public input. But, at the pace the group is moving, interested members of the public could miss the action. If that’s you, here are some of the ways to participate:

  1. Fill out this form to tell the Department of Public Health and Human Services how to improve Montana’s mental health system, addiction treatment offerings and developmental disabilities services. The department has said these public comments will be shared with the commission.
  2. Sign up for email updates at the commission’s website.
  3. Put the commission meeting dates, available here, on your calendar — every meeting will have time for public input. The agenda will be posted on that website a few days beforehand.
  4. Check this state calendar for subcommittee meetings. This is where service providers, researchers and state employees are hashing out complicated questions about workforce, community services, and “alternative settings” to the state psychiatric hospital. These meetings also have time for public comment. 
  5. Find out more about the state’s Alternative Settings Project at this part of the commission website.
  6. Call a lawmaker! The legislative branch members of the commission are:

Rep. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork
Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber
Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula
Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish
Rep. Michele Binkley, R-Hamilton
Rep. Mike Yakawich, R-Billings

And of course, if you have thoughts, questions or concerns about this ongoing reform effort, I’d love to hear from you as I think about how to cover this process, too. Don’t hesitate to reach out at

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

Fire Lookout 🔥

So far, August has been a bit of a roller coaster on the fire front.

After dry lightning storms lit up western Montana at the end of July, igniting a number of fast-growing fires, cold fronts arriving Aug. 5-9 brought cooler temperatures and precipitation to the region that briefly slowed fire spread.

Then this week, heat returned with record-setting temperatures. The National Weather Service reported that Missoula topped out at 103 degrees on Tuesday, Aug. 15, beating the date’s previous record high of 98 degrees, set in 2021. 

High temperatures combined with low humidity have started to undo the benefit of last week’s moisture. According to Bureau of Land Management Meteorologist Dan Borsum, who focuses on the Northern Rockies, fuels in western Montana are now nearly as dry as they were before the rains came through. 

As expected, drier fuels, hot temperatures and low humidity led to more active fire behavior this week. The Big Knife Fire east of Arlee, which has burned 6,275 acres and is 7% contained, produced a large smoke plume that could be seen from Missoula and portions of the Bitterroot Valley on Wednesday afternoon. On the Flathead National Forest, the Doris Point Fire picked up steam this week, increasing to 763 acres, and the Tin Soldier Complex also saw active fire growth. On the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge and Bitterroot national forests, the Bowles Creek Fire is now 6,847 acres, with smoke affecting nearby communities. 

Red Flag Warnings have been issued by the NWS through Friday night across western Montana and the northern half of the state. Additionally, an air quality alert was in effect until Friday at noon for Flathead, Lake, Lewis and Clark, Lincoln, Mineral, Missoula, Powell, and Sanders counties due to elevated particulate levels from wildfire smoke.

Smoke from Canada and other fires in the region, which engulfed much of the state this week, is expected to start clearing out on Friday as winds increase. The NWS also predicts cooler, rainy conditions from Sunday into early next week across the Northern Rockies. 

Looking ahead, the Northern Rockies Coordination Center projects that below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures will continue into late summer and early fall in western Montana. That means there’s likely to be plenty of fire season left to go.

—Bowman Leigh, Fire Reporting Intern

By the Numbers 🔢

Certified teaching positions open in public schools across Montana as of Aug. 16, according to the Office of Public Instruction. Despite new laws aimed at improving recruitment and retention, and increased flexibilities offered by the state in educator licensing, Montana continues to struggle with the same teacher shortage that is plaguing public schools throughout the country.

In an effort to combat the issue, OPI has held seven “virtual job fairs” for educators and school districts since April 2021, including two this summer. Data supplied by the agency shows that during its latest job fair on Aug. 4, 72 candidates participated. A previous job fair on June 23 attracted 347 candidates. 

According to OPI, there are currently 19,595 licensed education professionals in the state, a figure that includes teachers, administrators, counselors and Native American culture and language specialists. That means the openings represent about one in 20 positions in the state.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Following the Law ⚖️

In a sweeping, 103-page opinion issued Monday, Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ruled that the climate is part of the environment — and is therefore protected by the “clean and healthful environment” provision of Montana’s 51-year-old Constitution. The ruling, out of the Held v. Montana trial where 16 young plaintiffs challenged the state’s permissive approach to permitting fossil fuel projects, means state agencies will have to consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts when conducting environmental reviews.

Seeley’s order directs the state to reform its permitting processes with climate impacts in mind and says state agencies must have discretion to deny permits based on the findings of those analyses. That’s not something the state has done before, according to Montana Environmental Information Center co-director Anne Hedges, who served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs and has been tracking energy development in the state for three decades. 

“This changes everything,” Hedges told members of the Public Service Commission during an Aug. 16 meeting. “The decision will have a profound impact on our energy future.”

Critics of the ruling, such as Montana Petroleum Association Executive Director Alan Olson, say they believe it will prove overly cumbersome to implement given the technical challenges associated with emissions accounting.

The ruling, Olson said, “is definitely going to improve the litigation economy in Montana.”

The order strikes down this year’s House Bill 971, which barred the state from considering greenhouse gas emissions in environmental analyses. The Republican-controlled Legislature passed that law this spring in response to a different judge’s ruling that halted construction of a gas plant in Laurel. Seeley also deemed unconstitutional a provision of this year’s Senate Bill 557 requiring individuals or groups challenging state permitting decisions under the Montana Environmental Policy Act to first post a bond.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Jim Nelson called the ruling “one of the most powerful decisions on the environment I’ve ever read in Montana” and noted that the court has never before deemed the climate part of the environment. Some observers have suggested that the order — the outcome of a first-of-its-kind constitutional climate trial — will set the tone for future climate-related litigation. More than 2,400 climate-related lawsuits have been brought across the globe, according to Columbia Law School’s Center for Climate Law, most of them in the United States.

The state is likely to appeal Seeley’s ruling to the Montana Supreme Court.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Closeup 📸

Credit: Eliza Wiley/MTFP

Pictured here are Pam Bucy (left), one of Montana’s many landlords, and Sara Feilzer (right), one of the many Montana tenants who make their homes in someone else’s property.

Pam and Sara are at the center of a story we published this week that takes a bottom-up look at Montana’s housing crunch, exploring what rising prices have meant for each of them in recent years.

Housing is an issue we more typically cover from the top down with articles about economic analysestask force recommendations and the policy debates playing out at the highest levels of state government.

But such high-altitude coverage can’t always connect the abstract policy details (property tax balancingminimum lot sizes?) with consequences on the scale of our day-to-day lives. Our hope is that by taking the time to look at what higher prices have meant for Sara and Pam, we can shed some light on a different aspect of Montana’s housing conundrum.

You can find that story here: What ballooning home values mean for one tenant and her landlord

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

On Our Radar 

Amanda — For a couple of years now I’ve been casually following the push for restored passenger rail service through southern Montana. I therefore appreciated the Montana Standard’s recent update on what’s proven to be a long, uncertain process.

Alex — As the politicization of diversity policies and educational materials continues to rock the nation’s education system, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a small cadre of private universities (Duke, Cornell and Rutgers, to name a few) is launching a campaign this fall to promote free speech and free expression.

Arren — I happened to be in downtown Helena this week when one of our historic buildings, the Iron Front, caught fire, displacing dozens of residents who will now need to find new housing. The Helena Independent Record has details on the fire and how you can help affected businesses and individuals here.

Bowman — Since I’ve been writing a lot about burning trees this summer, I appreciated this Heatmap story, “Most Wildfires Aren’t Forest Fires,” as a reminder that grass fires are an important part of the picture too. 

Mara — A source recently passed on this New Yorker piece about how hospitals can better treat patients dealing with emergency mental health crises. It’s a touching piece of writing that helped me envision what this model could look like in Montana. 

Eric — More bad news for aspiring Montana homebuyers: 30-year mortgages have climbed to their highest rates in more than two decades says finance agency Freddie Mac. And, according to Zillow data, Montana home values are still rising too.  

Nick — I cringe each summer at the cascade of news about ugly-American tourists, but I must admit being a bit jealous of these two yahoos whose antics were documented by the Washington Post

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