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There’s a journalistic magic that comes with working out of the Choteau Acantha office. Locals from this farm-and-ranch town of 1,700 people filter in and out, seeking office supplies or passport photos or a copy of the paper’s latest Wednesday edition. A bell above the door rings each time it opens. Nearly without fail, it signals the start of a conversation with the paper’s staff about crops or parades or one of the myriad other topics at the forefront of the community’s collective mind.

The first time I heard that bell chime, I was a junior at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism, arriving at the start of a summer internship in 2006. Editor and co-owner Melody Martinsen immediately handed me a notebook. There’s a trailer home fire across town, she said — go. For a cub reporter who’d spent most of his college days covering punk rock shows and theater productions, that day-one assignment was a literal trial by fire.

I learned so much of what I know now about journalism in those three months, shooting photos, laying out newspaper pages and covering late-night school board meetings. Melody’s born-and-raised-here feedback on story pitches and drafts showed me that community awareness is a key to quality journalism. I begged her to take me on again the next summer. And when Montana Free Press launched a summer reporting residency program this year, there was no question where I wanted to go: back to my professional headwaters.

Things felt a bit different when I sat down at my borrowed desk at the Acantha earlier this month. It had been 15 years since I’d last worked for Melody and her husband/business partner, Jeff Martinsen. I’d put a lot of meat on my resume in that time: a nearly decade-long stint penning features at the Missoula Independent, two years supporting myself on freelance work, and, most recently, building a statewide education beat from the ground up here at MTFP. I wasn’t a cub anymore. And in my conversations with Mel and Jeff and their team, over coffee and page proofs and the din of the “Bynum! (if you got ’em)” music festival, I felt more like a peer than a fledgling under the wing.

But you’re never done learning — and community journalism will never run out of things to teach you. 

At a time when layoffs and reduced print days have devastated many newspapers, the Acantha remains more relevant to its community than ever. It’s still the place people go for news, for school sports highlights, for information pertinent to their lives and to those of their friends and neighbors. Circulation is still going strong and the paper has plenty to write about. Melody’s newsroom boasted four reporters this summer including her and a summer intern, seated at the same desk I used all those years ago. 

Hanging out back in the Acantha office, I realized just how much Melody and her news crew have benefitted from years of those doorbell-punctuated conversations. Between my reporting treks to nearby towns like Dutton and Power, they fed me bits of invaluable community insight — the best sources to talk to for information, the key questions to ask, how much time to budget for answers from a particularly chatty school administrator. They know the landscape intimately and command an encyclopedic knowledge of their local movers, shakers and everyday denizens.

It’s the kind of journalism built not just on interviews but on a connection to place shared with the readers they serve. As I continue to cover education issues across the state for MTFP, that Acantha magic serves as an ongoing inspiration.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Public Comment 🗣️

Yellowstone National Park is soliciting feedback on a proposal outlining three potential strategies for managing bison in and around the park, a long-awaited document that will guide how the park manages the animals in coordination with state and tribal wildlife officials.

Broadly speaking, the 149-page draft environmental impact statement outlines three options, one of which the park will adopt:

  1. A status quo option in which park managers would aim for a population of 3,500 to 5,000 animals and continue allowing existing hunting, hazing, quarantine and slaughter operations when bison stray outside the park.
  2. An option that would prioritize treaty hunting by tribal members to manage herd size and continue with the quarantine-and-transfer-to-tribes program that’s expanded in recent years.
  3. A comparatively hands-off approach in which bison would be managed more like other wildlife, e.g., elk. Under that framework, higher numbers of bison would be tolerated and slaughter operations would cease, though the park would continue bolstering tribal herds in other places with animals from the park.

Once adopted, the new plan will set the park’s policy as it works with other agencies through a workgroup created by the Interagency Bison Management Plan. That plan was adopted in 2000 in response to concerns that bison contact could infect Yellowstone-area cattle herds with brucellosis, a bacterial disease that can cause cattle to abort their young.

The draft proposal highlights recent research finding that wildlife-to-livestock transmissions of brucellosis are more likely attributable to elk than to cattle. Elk have transmitted brucellosis to cattle more than two dozen times since 2000 and there are no records of transmission to cattle directly attributed to bison, it says, though “they frequently mingle with elk and likely transmit brucellosis to them at times, and vice versa.” 

Federal law requires park officials to use the “best available science” when crafting environmental impact statements and to manage wildlife to “sustain them in their natural condition.”

The new plan comes on the heels of a tumultuous year for bison and the people who hunt them. More than 1,100 bison were shot by hunters this spring, a record number that park officials attribute to increasing participation in treaty-authorized hunting and a snowy winter that drove animals out of the park en masse. In January, an errant shot from a non-tribal hunter wounded a Nez Perce hunter. The prior month, 13 bison were killed in an accident involving a semi truck near the park’s west entrance.

There’s also a live petition before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect Yellowstone bison under the Endangered Species Act. The 12-month timer for the agency to decide if protections are warranted ran out in June, though it has not yet issued a decision.

As of last summer, there were about 5,900 bison in the park distributed between two primary herds.

The park is taking comment on the draft plan through Sept. 25 and will host two webinars on the draft. It will then produce a final plan. The first webinar is Monday, Aug. 28, from 10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. and the second is Tuesday, Aug. 29, from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Viewshed 🌄

Photo courtesy of Gray Diebolt

Thick smoke from the River Road East Fire fills the air above Highway 200 in western Montana on the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 18. 

Hot, dry conditions and high winds fueled the blaze, which blew up 6 miles east of Plains. Officials temporarily closed part of the highway as the fire gained steam and ultimately jumped the road. 

Identified as the “top active fire” in the state during the governor’s fire briefing this week, the River Road East Fire has burned 17,098 acres and is 7% contained. The Northern Rockies Coordination Center reported Thursday that 50 structures have been destroyed and another 265 threatened. The fire’s cause is unknown and currently under investigation. 

—Bowman Leigh, Fire Reporting Intern

Fire Lookout 🔥

Moisture left behind by Tropical Storm Hilary as it swept up the western U.S. from Baja, Mexico, brought a wave of heavy rainfall to western Montana and northern Idaho this week. More than an inch of rain fell on parts of Montana, which dampened fires and cooled down areas that experienced critical fire weather just last week. 

Over the three-day period of Aug. 19-21, 1.25 inches of rain accumulated at the community of Hungry Horse, near the RidgeDoris Point and Tin Soldier Complex fires. Kalispell, Ronan and Butte also received more than an inch of rain. Additionally, just less than an inch fell in Plains, near where the River Road East Fire ignited on Aug. 18 and quickly tore through thousands of acres.

The wet, cool conditions have allowed firefighters to access areas that would have been more dangerous to reach during extreme fire behavior. On the River Road East Fire this week, crews were able to build more direct control lines and “used the rainy-day opportunity to patrol and explore control line opportunities that have the greatest chance of success for fire suppression,” according to Inciweb.

Heavy rain and wind also caused problems for firefighters. On the Ridge, Doris Point and Tin Soldier Complex fires, crews had to deal with muddy road conditions and downed trees and debris that blocked roadways, according to a Thursday release from the incident management team. 

Fire crews now have five of the 15 large fires currently burning in western Montana at least 95% contained. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Division of Fire also announced that stage 2 fire restrictions would be lifted on the Flathead Indian Reservation starting Thursday, Aug. 24, reverting the area to stage 1 restrictions.  

—Bowman Leigh, Fire Reporting Intern

Verbatim 💬

“Being from a town of 500 people and growing up on a farm, it’s really slow. I drive a ’61 Lancer and my top speed is 60 miles an hour. When I’m driving on the highway, people almost rear-end me.”

— Billings songwriter Mary Kate Teske, on the pace of life in her hometown of Terry, 40 miles northeast of Miles City. Teske released her eponymous debut album in July. Last week she talked with Missoula writer Max Savage Levenson for the latest edition of “The Sit-Down.”

Hot Potato 🥔

For Montana lawmakers, work on a slate of changes to K-12 education policy wrapped up months ago. Among other things, the new laws shift how schools handle out-of-district enrollment, how they notify parents about sex education, and how they administer lessons on Indigenous culture.

But passing a state law is one thing. Putting those changes into practice? That’s a task that largely falls to local school boards, which are now busy baking the statutory fruits of the 2023 Legislature into their own policies and practices. According to Executive Director Lance Melton, the Montana School Boards Association amended 36 of the policies contained in its 632-page model policy manual in the wake of this year’s session. That model is designed to offer individual districts a template for updating their own policies.

That’s work that happens after every legislative session. But with many of the changes intersecting with hot-button-social issues, local school leaders have an especially tricky task this time around.

Several school superintendents said in interviews this week that gender identity is clearly the distinguishing issue between the policy updates of 2023 and those of years past. While none reference transgender students directly, a string of Republican bills addressing parental rights and disciplinary practices has raised questions about whether districts that comply with the letter of the state’s new laws might violate federal protections for those students under Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools.

The situation is all the more confusing for school leaders due to shifting federal guidance on Title IX between recent presidential administrations, and after a court injunction in Tennessee that currently blocks Montana and 19 other states from extending sex discrimination protections to transgender students. Bozeman Schools Superintendent Casey Bertram characterized the situation as a “messy hot potato.” 

Some school boards have opted to pass the tuber along, adding a legal reference to the new state laws but steering clear of outlining any uniform local practice in their policy books. According to Bertram and superintendents Micah Hill in Missoula and Tom Moore in Great Falls, district personnel will continue handling those situations on a case-by-case basis with input from students, parents and educators.

“We are trying to take an approach working with families on all sides of the issue and trying to find some common ground or middle ground that will affirm the rights of all of our students and not inadvertently discriminate against a different group of students,” Bertram said.

Read more in this week’s story.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda — Last week I found “There There,” a debut novel by Tommy Orange, to be so good that I was sad to have finished it. You can also listen to Orange read an excerpt from it in the New Yorker’s Writer’s Voice podcast.

Alex — It was immediately clear that Donald Trump’s booking photo from Fulton County, Georgia, where he’s been charged with trying to overturn the state’s 2020 election result, was one for the history books. “Mugshots define an era,” the Guardian wrote in an analysis piece on what Trump’s latest photo op says about a deeply divided America. 

Arren —  As a journalist and frequent downloader of documents, I feel obligated to mark the unfortunate passing of John Warnock, who invented the PDF. 

Bowman — I had no idea that “fire tornadoes,” also known as fire whirls, existed until I saw this video posted by the British Columbia Wildfire Service this week. Nick Mott’s Montana Public Radio story from 2021 also explains the phenomenon. Spoiler: fire whirls could become more frequent as climate change fuels hotter and drier fire seasons. 

Mara — Therapeutic writing sessions may be as effective as other forms of treatment for PTSD. A recent study found that written exposure therapy, which takes place over shorter sessions and time frames, also had a smaller dropout rate among 178 veterans compared to prolonged exposure therapy. Keep an eye out for more research on this method in the years ahead.

Eric — Need some glorious overkill for your Friday afternoon? This YouTuber attached an eight-cylinder gas engine to a handheld drill.

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