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Regular readers might have noticed something a bit out of the ordinary on Monday of this week: the launch of a new bi-monthly Montana Free Press column (and newsletter), called “Wide Open Table,” that’s focused on… food? 

What, you may wonder, does food have to do with the politics-and-policy coverage that comprises the — pardon the expression — meat and potatoes of MTFP’s mission? More than you might think. 

First and foremost, the fuel and fare we feed ourselves and each other creates community. That’s true at home, where food shares conversational space with kitchen-table issues like education and the economy, and in the booths of any Montana Main Street Cafe.

If it’s important to Montanans, it’s often mulled over a meal. 

At its best, journalism builds community as well. Local newspapers have long reflected the wide variety of interests and affinities — high school sports, civic anniversaries and, yes, seasonal ingredients and recipes — that bring Montanans together. We don’t have the reporting staff to cover high school football, but starting this month we do have Wide Open Table writer Jon Bennion, who brings an opportunity to serve up another slice of Montana’s civic fabric.

You may already be familiar with Bennion. He’s frequently quoted in the state’s news outlets, either by virtue of his day job as a Helena-based attorney or in his role as the author of “Big Sky Politics,” the go-to reference on political campaigns and elections in Montana. As @intermediatechef, he’s also built a following on Instagram for his pasta-centric self-education in the culinary arts. 

And nourishing community through the foodways of Montana is front and center on Bennion’s menu. In his own words:

On Wide Open Table I will delve into the dishes that are the fabric of this corner of the country as well as weaving in the food of far-away places. Occasionally I will showcase professional chefs, the home chefs making some of the classics we all love, and the creations of new arrivals. Food can tell a story. Food is tradition. Food is ever-evolving. Let’s explore food and all it entails together.

That’s an invitation MTFP was eager to accept. We’ve got a plate saved for you, too. 

—Brad Tyer, Editor

By the Numbers 🔢

Number of bills passed during the 2023 session that will take effect on Sunday, Oct. 1, the general effective date for legislation that doesn’t specify otherwise. Among those bills are some high-profile measures such as House Bill 234, the so-called obscenity bill that GOP lawmakers passed this year. 

Following the Money 💵

Montana homeowners have until the end of this coming Monday, Oct. 2, to apply for rebates on 2022 property taxes being offered through the Montana Department of Revenue. According to the department, claims made electronically through its website must be filed by 11:59 p.m. Monday. Claims made with hardcopy forms by mail must be postmarked no later than Oct. 2.

The rebates, as much as $675, were authorized by the Legislature this year as it sought to spend a major budget surplus and ward off angst over rising tax bills. Homeowners who owned, lived in, and paid property taxes for their residence for at least seven months in 2022 are generally eligible.

Many Montana property owners saw dramatic increases in their property values in this year’s reappraisal cycle, with the median residential property value increasing 46% over the two-year cycle. While the department’s reappraisal notices indicated property tax bills would rise proportionately, most tax experts — the department’s director included — have since said those estimates likely overstate how much most property owners will owe.

Official tax bills, which will factor in local government tax rates that generally scale down with higher property values, will be mailed by county treasurers in October. 

See more: MTFP’s tax rebate FAQ.

Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

Following the Law ⚖️

A Missoula judge took an initial stab this week at answering a question that created an uproar during the 2023 Legislature: whether a Republican bill banning medical treatments for transgender youth with gender dysphoria runs headlong into numerous rights set forth by the Montana Constitution. 

In a 48-page ruling handed down Wednesday, Missoula District Court Judge Jason Marks reasoned that, at first glance, Senate Bill 99 seems to do just that. One apparent violation, Marks wrote, is the bill’s potential conflict with the right of equal protection — parents could still permit their children to access the restricted medical treatments, but only for the purpose of treating conditions other than gender dysphoria. If the bill was truly meant to protect children from experimental and dangerous medical treatments, Marks wrote, it would have to do so for all minors.

“The court finds that SB 99 likely does not survive strict scrutiny because it does not serve its purported compelling governmental interest of protecting minor Montanans from pressure to receive harmful medical treatments,” Marks wrote, referencing the legal threshold the state must meet to enact a law that may infringe on fundamental rights. “Alternatively, the court finds that SB 99 is unlikely to survive any level of constitutional review.”

The court’s preliminary injunction blocks the law from taking effect as scheduled on Oct. 1 and bars the state from enforcing it while litigation continues. It doesn’t represent a full ruling in the case, which, with more than 2,000 pages of arguments, evidence and expert testimony already in the case file, is proceeding toward what will likely be a lengthy trial.

The ruling was met with relief and celebration from plaintiffs: transgender teens, their parents and health care providers who said a ban on existing medications would throw patients around the state into turmoil. The office of Attorney General Austin Knudsen, tasked with defending Gov. Greg Gianforte and other state entities in the lawsuit, filed an immediate notice of appeal with the Montana State Supreme Court.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

Wildlife Watch 🎣

Effective Sunday, Oct. 1, sections of three southwest Montana rivers struggling with declining trout populations will be off-limits to anglers for the protection of spawning trout.

The closure, which applies to portions of the Big Hole, Beaverhead and Ruby rivers, is the result of an emergency fishing regulation approved by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission in June on Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ recommendation. By closing portions of the rivers, the department hopes to protect brown trout redds, or nests, and spare the fish from undue stress. 

On June 6, FWP announced that trout populations on the Big Hole, Beaverhead and Ruby were “at or near historical lows.” Brown trout counts in the Big Hole, an iconic river that winds through a sparsely populated agricultural landscape, were the lowest since surveying began in 1969. The decline has drawn notice from as far afield as the New York Times, which reported on the “zombie trout” unsettling a “fly-fishing mecca.”

Scheduled reopenings for the rivers vary. The Big Hole from Dickie Bridge to the Jefferson River will reopen April 1, as will the section of the Ruby from Ruby Dam to Alder Bridge. The Clark Canyon Dam to Pipe Organ Bridge stretch of the Beaverhead will remain closed through May 18.

FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon said the closures might be familiar to longtime Montana anglers. The fishing season in Montana previously ran from the third Sunday in May through the end of October, he said, adding that the new earlier closures are generally supported by the fishing community, given the fisheries’ condition.

Fishery managers are still striving to understand the cause of the southwest Montana trout decline. FWP is coordinating research with Montana State University to begin next year aimed at better understanding trout mortality and recruitment, along with any novel pathogens that may be compromising fish health. 

Big Hole River Foundation Executive Director Brian Wheeler said the closure will impact outfitters, fly shops and other businesses in the area, many of which are used to fielding angling traffic well into October. Still, he said, he feels it’s the right approach. 

“We should be taking an ultra-conservative approach until we rein this in and turn the tide,” he said. 

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Fire Lookout 🔥

For the second summer in a row, wildfire coverage out of the MTFP newsroom has been the sole focus of the Environmental Reporting Intern — a position I have been lucky enough to hold since early July. 

Over the past three months, wildfire has been both an exciting and challenging beat to cover, one that constantly surprised me at the range of stories (and people) it touches and how intertwined those stories are with Montanans’ way of life. 

As many fire managers and ecologists will tell you, we no longer have a fire season, but a fire year. Wildfire not only shapes the landscape, but also the decisions made across communities, land management agencies and political arenas. Wildfire, whether or not we see it every day, is part of the place we call home and will continue to influence how we adapt to a changing climate. 

This summer, I tackled daily coverage of Montana’s large, early-season wildfires and updated MTFP’s guide to managing personal health during periods of smoke and high heat. I also had the opportunity to report a longer feature on an emerging wildfire risk assessment tool that’s using AI and local expertise to get more “good fire” on the landscape. The Montana Fire Report (soon to be retired for the year) offered an at-a-glance look at active fires and air quality conditions across the state, and my final story today provides a look back at how Montana’s wildfires in 2023 shaped up. 

In keeping with tradition, I have a few words of gratitude to share on my last day in this role. 

Thank you to the voices and perspectives that informed my reporting, including experts from the National Weather Service, University of Montana, U.S. Forest Service, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Division of Fire.

Thank you to the inspiring and formidable team at MTFP — a group of fiercely intelligent, kind and dedicated journalists who welcomed me and showed me what it looks like to serve this state with unbiased, thoughtful and deeply reported stories.

And thank you to the readers who followed this summer’s wildfire coverage and shared their insights, thoughts and ideas with me. 

It’s been a pleasure to be your wildfire reporter.

—Bowman Leigh, Fire Reporting Intern

Say Again? 🤔

State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen recently issued an intriguing reminder to Montana parents: With the 2023 fall semester well underway, she encouraged them to opt their children in to a statewide repository of student photos co-managed by the Office of Public Instruction and the Department of Justice. It was the first I’d heard of this particular public education-law enforcement team-up, and knowing how sensitive student information is for parents and educators alike, my curiosity was piqued.

According to OPI, the repository arose during the waning years of Democrat Steve Bullock’s eight-year tenure as governor as part of a broader push to address the national epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people. Among its efforts on that issue, the 2019 Legislature established a centralized database of student photos to share with law enforcement if, and only if, a child is reported missing. A coalition of Democratic and Republican lawmakers shepherded the new policy into law, with Sen. Edie McClafferty, D-Butte, characterizing it as “one of the most important pieces of legislation that we’re going to be passing this session for our children.”

Supporters at the time emphasized that the law made participation an option for families, not a mandate, and argued that the repository would ease the exchange of information necessary to locate missing kids. In an email response to questions this week, DOJ spokesperson Emilee Cantrell echoed that stance, writing that in practice, the repository has been particularly helpful in cases where missing children “do not come from safe or supportive families and might not provide a photo to law enforcement.”

“When we have a photo,” Cantrell wrote, “we usually receive more tips.”

To ensure that student pictures don’t fall into the wrong hands, OPI spokesperson Brian O’Leary wrote, access to the repository is password-restricted solely to agency staff and contractors who are essential in maintaining it. Data sharing with DOJ is done through “a secure link,” O’Leary added. And, according to Cantrell, OPI alone has control over who can access the database, with authority currently granted to only five DOJ employees. Images are updated annually and are deleted from the system after two years. 

It falls to individual school districts to obtain parental consent for opting student photos in to the repository, which they do using a form provided by OPI. O’Leary wrote that data on how many parents participate is not currently available.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda — This podcast episode from Outside/In, featuring one woman’s psilocybin-aided attempt to come to grips with her mortality, was a great listen. In it, a cancer patient struggling to come to terms with her diagnosis gives a play-by-play of the therapist-assisted trip she took as a clinical study participant.

Alex — We’ve hit that time of year when the days of fly fishing feel numbered and it’s tough to focus on anything but the next cast. To help keep my mind on work during the week, I’ve spent my lunches gorging on essays from Thomas McGuane’s collection “The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing” — to mild success.

Arren —  I’d like to take my Radar space this week to celebrate the life of my grandfather, Dan Sannit, who passed away at 101 years old on Thursday. There is no sufficient space to describe the incredible life he led, but I wrote a very brief social media tribute.

Bowman — Combining two of my favorite subjects, beavers and wildfire, for my final Radar pick of the summer, I give you this video from PBS Terra: “Want to solve wildfires and drought? Leave it to beavers.

Mara —  A joint report produced by KFF Health News and the Tampa Bay Times pulls back the curtain on how psychotropic medications are often prescribed to children in Florida’s foster care system with minimal oversight, or even records of psychiatric diagnoses. Those findings were part of an audit of five randomly selected states’ records, Montana not among them, but the story raises a striking issue that other states may need to examine. 

Eric — In the market for a vintage 1976 school bus? Someone outside of Monarch has one listed on Craigslist for a presumably negotiable price of $500. They acknowledge it hasn’t run since 1992, but suggest it could make a great woodshed — or camper.

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