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.

While working on a story about the state’s newly-released wolf management plan this week, I was surprised — though not shocked — to hear from a source that armed game wardens used to staff state Fish and Wildlife Commission meetings when wolves were on the agenda. 

Evidently, that’s no longer the case, but wolf management is still clearly a hot-button issue. In the dozen years since wolves were removed from the federal Endangered Species List, any discussion pertaining to population targets or how and where hunters and trappers are permitted to pursue wolves has drawn impassioned comment. Stakeholders in that debate include environmentalists, ranchers, contingents of the hunting and trapping community, and wildlife-adjacent businesses operating in Yellowstone National Park-gateway communities.

Hanging over the wolf debate is the possibility that Northern Rockies wolves could once again grace the Endangered Species List. Two years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it had found sufficient merit in petitions arguing Montana’s and Idaho’s laws and regulations will drive their wolf numbers below sustainable levels that the agency would explore restoring federal protections. The agency has committed to reaching a decision on that question — now well over a year overdue —  by Feb. 2. 

The woman who will sign off on the decision, USFWS Director Martha Williams, once headed Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks and even argued on behalf of the state when it was petitioning the U.S. government to remove wolves from the endangered species list in the late aughts. Now Williams is being asked to consider whether her own state has jeopardized the animal’s recovery by legalizing a slew of hunting methods ranging from the use of neck snares to reimbursing hunters and trappers for their expenses, a practice critics describe as a bounty.

Coming in the middle of all of this is the 2023 Montana Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, a 110-page document still in draft form that will be studied by USFWS and other interested parties. In it, FWP attempts to lay out a management approach that can incorporate wolf laws passed by the state legislature without reducing populations so far that the feds end up stepping in — a tricky proposition. 

FWP shied away from setting minimum or maximum population targets in its new plan, but it did say that it will “continue to manage wolves with a primary objective of maintaining a healthy, sustainable population above federal ESA listing criteria,” adding that means a population of “15 breeding pairs or 450 wolves.”

Alex Metcalf, a professor in the University of Montana’s Human Dimensions Lab, argues that there’s no magical “right” number of wolves wildlife managers could shoot for. Wolves “would live in downtown Missoula and every other nook and cranny of the state if we let them,” Metcalf told me in a text message. “Whether and where wolves live is 100% about social support …  There is just the number that we’ll allow.”

I’ll be interested to see if FWP and USFWS can agree, at least conceptually, on what that number should be.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

3 Questions For

This weekend, Dr. Frank N. Furter’s high-heeled boots will once again stomp the boards of Missoula’s Wilma Theater as the Havre-based Montana Actors’ Theatre stages four live performances of the Rocky Horror Show, the transgressive rock musical that has for 50 years celebrated queer identity and sexual liberation. 

But bringing the Time Warp to the Garden City has raised numerous challenges since 2009, including a two-year pandemic-induced hiatus. The latest curveball came this spring when Montana lawmakers passed a law prohibiting minors from attending “sexually oriented” performances. House Bill 359 raised new considerations for Rocky’s showrunners given the musical’s revealing outfits and at-times suggestive nature. MTFP spoke this week with Reid Reimers, Rocky’s Missoula-born producer, director and perennial wearer of Dr. Frank N. Furter’s fishnet stockings, ahead of the show’s Oct. 27 and 28 run.

MTFP: Take us back a bit. When did HB 359 start to become a factor for the 2023 Rocky crew?

Reimers: I’ll be honest, it didn’t even really cross my mind that the law would pertain to us. We’re a private rental at the Wilma. But as we started to get closer [to opening], it was kind of brought up by the Wilma because, given how the law was written, it’s the place that puts on the event that would receive fines, and we have the show as an all-ages show.

Rocky would maybe be PG-13 in a movie format, so we don’t think it’s horribly inappropriate for younger folks to come. But that kind of placed us squarely into the language of this law, how they loosely describe performances of a sexual nature, how they describe what I suppose they would call cross-dressing … that’s really who they were going after.

MTFP: The law’s been blocked by a state court now, but have you thought about what you’d do if it ever came back into effect?

Reimers: I’m not exactly a scofflaw, right? I don’t litter, I don’t speed. But for things like this that I truly, truly believe are a step backward in society and that are just to score, I believe, political points and to send out dog whistles to certain conservative populations in the state — these are the exact kind of laws I would love to fight against. I can’t think of a better form of defiance than coming up and doing the show in direct contradiction to the law.

MTFP: Why do you think staging Rocky would be a fitting form of protest against a law like this?

Reimers: Weirdly it’s kind of an echo of the post-60s era when the first Rocky [Horror Show] came out. There was a swing into conservatism after the late 60s, early 70s that brought us around essentially to the Reagan era that we’re maybe feeling and seeing again in a post-Obama world.

The show, at its heart, is a celebration of diversity and decadence, and it also honestly looks at [how] sometimes you can go too far as well. There’s a lot to this admittedly big silly show, even just the exposure for folks that feel kind of forgotten or fought against legally — trans folks and non-binary folks, even just gay folks like me. There’s no guarantee that even the legal right to marry, given the new Supreme Court, is set in stone. I think positivity and visibility is the best way to move forward on issues like this, and Rocky is a perfect example of both of those.

By the Numbers 🔢

Percentage increase in NorthWestern Energy’s residential electricity rates following the conclusion of a rate case overseen by the Montana Public Service Commission, the elected board charged with regulating monopoly utilities operating in Montana. 

The PSC on Wednesday unanimously approved the final rate hike, closing the book on a 14-month rate restructuring process that will allow NorthWestern, the state’s largest monopoly utility company, to increase its electricity revenues by $82 million and natural gas revenues by $18 million.

The 28% jump represents the total increase between August 2022, when NorthWestern first pitched the Public Service Commission on a new rate structure, and November, when the final rate goes into effect. Since the company started integrating a 20% interim increase into residential customers’ bills last October, the “rate shock” factor should be attenuated by the fact that NorthWestern’s customers have had about a year to acclimate to higher power bills.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter 

The Viz 📈

According to information supplied this week by the Montana Association of Counties, 49 of Montana’s 56 counties have chosen to buck a directive from the administration of Gov. Greg Gianforte by scaling back their collections of a state-level school funding property tax.

The dispute stems from differing interpretations about how a local tax cap law applies to the tax, which produces revenue to help the state balance funding between tax-base-rich and tax-base-poor districts. The situation has now produced multiple cases pending before the Montana Supreme Court.

Those 49 counties will levy 77.9 mills of school equalization tax for 2023, as opposed to the full 95 mills ordered by the Montana Department of Revenue. The association tally indicates that only Broadwater, Deer Lodge, Glacier, Madison, Meagher, Teton and Toole counties will levy the full amount.

County officials, Gianforte administration officials and education advocates have spent weeks debating what’s allowable under the tax cap law, with the interpretation favored by most county officials contradicting how state officials have handled the school tax for decades.

The uncertainty has put county officials in a position where they have to choose whether to collect the lower amount, running the risk that a court order eventually forces them to send a supplemental tax bill, or alternatively collect the full 95 mills, which could put them at risk of litigation brought by taxpayers who believe they’re being overcharged.

The Montana Quality Education Coalition, which represents school boards, the state’s teachers union and other education advocates, filed suit against counties at the Montana Supreme Court Oct. 11.

In their lawsuit, education advocates argue that the lower collections would leave a $160 million gap in the two-year education budget approved by this year’s Montana Legislature and ask justices to issue an order requiring counties to collect the full 95 mills. County officials who favor the lower collection level have said they believe the state General Fund, which has been running a surplus in recent years, can readily cover the difference.

The Montana Association of Counties announced this week that it has filed its own lawsuit before the high court. Naming the state and Gianforte’s revenue department as defendants, that lawsuit asks the court to rule that the state can’t legally order the collection of the full 95 mills.

As of Friday, justices had yet to rule on either case.

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

Follow-up 🗓️

The investigation into the shooting at Helena’s Planned Parenthood health clinic earlier this month is still underway without a named suspect or arrest. No people were injured during the Oct. 5 event. The health clinic, one of Montana’s few abortion providers, remains operational. 

The case is now being handled almost entirely by the FBI, a spokesperson for the Helena Police Department said Thursday. The bureau’s involvement was first announced the week after a person fired two rounds from a shotgun at the clinic’s front doors from outside the building. Law enforcement later circulated images from surveillance footage showing a person wearing a tan baseball hat and a flannel shirt holding a shotgun, as well as what law enforcement said appears to be a 1992-1997 Toyota Corolla station wagon near the incident. 

A spokesperson for the FBI said Thursday that the investigation is ongoing and law enforcement is still searching for the suspect from the surveillance footage. The spokesperson also said Friday that the bureau isn’t searching for anyone else in connection with the case, hasn’t located the vehicle and isn’t limiting its search to Montana.

Tips can be submitted to or by calling the bureau’s Salt Lake City office at 801-579-1400.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

The Gist 📌

The administration of President Joe Biden announced this week that it is naming portions of western Montana as a regional hub focused on smart sensing technology, a designation that could bolster that industry sector with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and private funding in the years to come.

The designation stems from the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act, a measure passed by Congress in an effort to boost made-in-America semiconductor manufacturing and support other technological innovations in fields seen as vital to national security. Montana’s newly designated “Headwaters Hub” applies to Missoula, Bozeman, Kalispell and Butte and is intended to help the region’s existing cluster of photonics companies grow into a globally prominent Silicon Valley-esque technology hotspot focused on applying remote sensing to applications including national security, natural resource management and disaster prevention.

Application materials provided by the Montana Department of Commerce describe how Montana companies are already involved with sensing technology that can equip laser-guided missiles and self-driving cars, as well as monitor forest-floor fuel density and inform more efficient agricultural practices. They also describe the investment as necessary to keep the development of cutting-edge technology from shifting to Asia.

The hub will be administered by Accelerate MT, a business incubator affiliated with the University of Montana. Other initial partners include Montana State University, the Montana Chamber of Commerce, assorted state agencies and several private-sector photonics businesses and venture capital funds. 

Officials and industry groups who worked on the application celebrated the announcement in statements this week, with Montana Chamber President Todd O’Hair saying the designation “has the potential to propel our region’s economy to unprecedented heights.” Additionally, U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Steve Daines, a Republican, both issued statements touting their roles in developing the legislation and support for the Montana application.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Montana tech hub was one of 31 designated nationally out of 198 applications.

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

On Our Radar 

Amanda — After neglecting it for a dozen years, I finally got around to reading Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner this fall. I’m simultaneously wondering why it took me so long to get to it and appreciating the Shakespeare and Co. bookseller who recommended it long before I was old enough to appreciate it. 

Alex — As a lifelong Minnesota Twins fan, I have a hard time getting terribly excited about the World Series (the Twins haven’t made a series appearance since the golden days of Kirby Puckett back in 1991). But the Washington Post did give me a few reasons to get excited about this weekend’s wild-card matchup between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Texas Rangers.

Arren —  I was fascinated by this Politico interview with historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez on the evangelical roots of newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson’s hardline politics.

Nick — If you are under the impression that running one of the top college football programs in the country requires indubitable integrity and a great deal of smarts, I offer this contrary evidence, one of the great, all-time knuckle-headed sports scandals, at the University of Michigan. 

Mara — This ProPublica investigation into worker deaths at small Wisconsin dairy farms highlights a domain of squishy oversight by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In light of recent deaths of undocumented employees, an often-vulnerable class of workers, the article focuses on a somewhat bizarre connection — that OSHA’s ability to investigate family-owned farms hinges on the seemingly arbitrary question of whether employers provide temporary housing to workers.

Eric — New Missoula local outlet The Pulp published two of the most colorful candidate interviews I’ve read in ages this week. Reporter Kathleen Shannon took one of the city’s mayoral hopefuls, Andrea Davis, out to an axe-throwing range and had another, Mike Nugent, take an axe to an old toilet in a local “rage room.”

*Some stories may require a subscription. Subscribe!