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Reports of grizzly bears spreading into areas where they haven’t been spotted in decades seem to have come one after another this summer. A video of bears running through a neighborhood in Ulm, north of Great Falls, circulated widely in June. Confirmed sightings in the Pryor Mountains south of Billings, the Shields River Valley north of Livingston and the greater Helena area followed in July.
News this week that a grizzly crossed a vast swath of private land to reach the Missouri River Breaks was therefore not entirely unexpected, but still surprising. It’s believed to be the easternmost sighting of a grizzly in Montana in a century.
The bruin was photographed by a trail camera on the PN Ranch northeast of Winifred last month. American Prairie, a nonprofit formerly known as the American Prairie Reserve, purchased the PN Ranch in 2016, adding the property to its ambitious (and controversial) mission to use private capital to create the largest grassland reserve in the nation. American Prairie welcomed the sighting, as did many in the environmental community.
“Other than bison roaming, I don’t think there is any better symbol of prairie wildness than a grizzly bear,” Daniel Kinka, a senior wildlife restoration manager for American Prairie, told the Billings Gazette Thursday. “I’ve been dreaming about this moment since the day I started at American Prairie almost six years ago. Some of us for much longer.”
Farmers and ranchers have generally not shown much enthusiasm for the eastward expansion of grizzlies, which were widespread throughout much of the American West before being eradicated from most of their range in the 19th and 20th centuries. Earlier this year, Trina Bradley, a Rocky Mountain Front rancher who chairs a Montana Stockgrowers Association subcommittee on endangered species, told MTFP that the state’s draft grizzly management plan doesn’t do enough to control Montana’s growing population of grizzlies. She argued that the animals aren’t “some magical unicorn” that deserves special treatment by virtue of their position on the food chain. Bradley supports a grizzly hunting season, which is one of the more controversial proposals included in the draft plan Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks released in December.
Of course, there are myriad perspectives on grizzly management that don’t fall neatly within “environmentalist” and “rancher” categories. They’re important, too, particularly as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service weighs Montana’s petition to remove the grizzlies’ federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Have a take on other considerations that you think get a short shrift in these discussions about “prairie bears”? If yes, I’d love to hear from you as I continue to report on the issue. I can be reached at email@example.com.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
By the Numbers 🔢
Number of short-term rentals recently available in Whitefish, according to the website AirDNA, which tracks such rentals. The city has licensed only 325 short-term rentals, suggesting that upwards of 500 are operating illegally. With that in mind, city officials hope to soon hire a full-time position to crack down on those unregistered rental properties.
Say What? 🤔
Montana’s Board of Public Education voted unanimously this week to sign a letter to the National Education Association expressing objection to what it called the sharing of “inaccurate and unauthentic information” about Indigenous peoples.
The letter originated with the Montana Advisory Council on Indian Education, which advises state education officials on Indigenous education, and the concerns its chair, Jordann Lankford-Forster, said she has fielded from teachers who have attended NEA events and trainings. Lankford-Forster, a Great Falls educator and member of the Gros Ventre and Little Shell tribes, spoke for herself and those unnamed teachers in describing specific instances that prompted the call for the NEA, the nation’s largest labor union, to better vet its educational materials.
“They asked us to take what they called a ‘race literacy quiz’ that they essentially just pulled from the internet, and one of the questions was, ‘What was the most controversial thing about Pocahontas marrying John Rolfe?’” Lankford-Forster said. “And the answer was ‘because a princess married beneath her,’ and Pocahontas wasn’t a princess.”
“That is shocking and disappointing,” replied Board of Public Education Chair Tim Tharp, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte last year.
The grassroots Indigenous Foundation has described Pocahontas as “one of the first real-life Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.” Since Disney pushed her to mainstream prominence with its 1995 film, numerous Indigenous activists and historians have attempted to set the record straight about the true story of the Powhatan woman, who died in her early 20s after traveling to England with her husband. During her remarks Wednesday, Lankford-Forster noted that Montana sets a high standard when it comes to American Indian education. She and other educators, she said, find it “disheartening” not to see that standard carry over to the national level.
Lankford-Forster said she has also heard concerns about the NEA’s materials related to Indian boarding schools. She added that she’d brought the concerns to the attention of the National Indian Education Association, which had in turn contacted the NEA.
The Montana education board voted unanimously to sign on to the letter to the NEA, which was also signed by the state Office of Public Instruction and the state’s largest public employees union, the Montana Federation of Public Employees. MFPE President Amanda Curtis told MTFP this week that she has “no doubt NEA will address this in a timely manner.”
In a statement to MTFP Friday, the NEA wrote that it “immediately moved” to correct its materials when it became aware of the concerns, adding that its goal is to “educate students and educators honestly and accurately about Native history and the people whose land we occupy.”
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
The Viz 📈
Yellowstone National Park’s announcement on Tuesday that it has documented its first case of chronic wasting disease, in a mule deer buck, prompted MTFP to take a look at the most recent CWD surveillance data compiled by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Since CWD was first detected in Montana in 2017, the degenerative disease, related to mad cow disease, has continued to expand along the state’s northern and southern borders. While still not nearly as prevalent in Montana as in Wyoming, where 19% of sampled mule deer and white-tailed deer tested positive for the disease last year, the percentage of CWD-positive animals in Montana has been inching up over time. Since FWP started encouraging hunters to test harvested deer, elk and moose in 2017, 3% of all animals tested for CWD in Montana have returned positive results. Of the 2,437 animals tested so far in 2023, 85 have tested positive, or 3.5%.
The spread of the disease, which is fatal to infected animals and can’t be eradicated, has implications for hunters’ freezers and outfitters’ earnings. Wildlife managers have expressed concerns about deer population declines in states and Canadian provinces where the disease is especially widespread.
Although there are no documented cases of a person becoming ill after eating an animal that’s carrying CWD, FWP and the Centers for Disease Control counsel hunters to test their kills and refrain from eating the meat off infected animals.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
“Despite generations of collaboration, we are deeply concerned that the Commission has lost its way. We passed this resolution to make clear our belief that common ground exists, and that MLA remains committed to the health and longevity of library services in Montana.”— Montana Library Association President Kelly Reisig in a Nov. 13 statement addressing the Montana State Library Commission’s recent move to eliminate an educational standard for directors of the state’s seven largest libraries.
Last month, the commission advanced a regulation striking a longstanding requirement that those large library directors hold a master’s degree in library or information science, with supporters of the change arguing that such standards should rightly be established by local library boards. Those supporters included board members from Kalispell’s ImagineIF Library, which last year became the only large library in Montana to employ a director who did not meet the standard, resulting in the loss of more than $35,000 in state funding.
In response, the MLA’s executive board adopted a resolution this week declaring that the commission’s decision has “denigrated the standing of Montana’s library professionals and put the future of library services in Montana at risk.” The association vowed to recognize the importance of local control while continuing to uphold the “highest standards of professionalism,” and urged the commission and other stakeholders to “find common ground, address concerns, and work together to ensure the continued success of Montana’s libraries.”
The Montana State Library Commission is taking public comment on the master’s degree requirement until Dec. 1.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
The annual Thanksgiving holiday, celebrated next Thursday, is a complicated occasion, simultaneously leavened with seasonal respite and leaden with colonial and commercial baggage. On all counts, though, it continues to center on the community-affirming act of sharing a meal with family and friends. But what to eat? The classic turkey-centric table is all but calcified in mainline American culture, but that’s hardly the only menu available to adventurous and intentional eaters. Case in point: Mariah Gladstone’s Indigikitchen enterprise, whereby the Blackfeet and Cherokee Montanan encourages the restoration of precontact Indigenous ingredients to contemporary diets.
With Thanksgiving on next week’s horizon, the Montana Historical Society is hosting Gladstone for “A Taste of Indigenous Foods,” a virtual (via Zoom) keynote/cooking class during which Gladstone will talk about “the history of Indigenous foodways and the First Thanksgiving” and prepare an (undisclosed at press time) original recipe. Pre-registration is both free and required (you’ll be sent an ingredient list so you can cook along). The event takes place on Monday, Nov. 20, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
—Brad Tyer, Editor
On Our Radar
Amanda — The Flathead Beacon has the latest on the fight over a partially built three-story home on the shore of McDonald Creek in Glacier National Park. A state hearing examiner sided with the Flathead Conservation District in a decision directing the property’s owners to remove the home, which was built without a permit required under the Montana Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act.
Alex — Lately I’ve been gorging myself on episodes of New York magazine’s “Cover Story” podcast. Teaser: The second season dives deep into a legally charged falling out between a Whitefish billionaire and a self-styled ex-spy.
Arren — Major League Baseball approved the relocation of the Oakland Athletics to Las Vegas this week, ending more than six decades of professional sports in the East Bay. The Athletics follow the Raiders of the National Football League, who also left for Vegas, and basketball’s Golden State Warriors, who crossed the bay to San Francisco. Some see the “death of the working-class sports fan,” the New York Times reports.
Brad — One of the side effects of constantly typing on phones and keyboards, for me at least, has been a reactionary impulse toward writing with a pen, on paper, instead. So I’ve been collecting my way through a getting-to-know-you variety of ballpoints, gel pens, and what’s turned out to be my favorite (there’s a difference, you know): rollerballs. And if you watch enough pen reviews on YouTube, you’re eventually going to stumble across an industrial video about how they’re made that’s way more meditatively relaxing than even the analog penmanship that inspired the search.
Nick — I’m oddly fascinated by F1 racing (don’t get me started on the merits of soft vs. hard tires) and amused by the open debauchery that is Las Vegas (never, ever, under any circumstances, stay longer than three nights) so I appreciated reading how the city’s streets were transformed into a race track for this weekend’s overhyped, starting-after-my-bedtime, will-clearly-need-to-tape-for-later-viewing spectacle.
Mara — Republican lawmakers have, once again, helped stymie the Gianforte administration’s efforts to use agency-level rules to allow religious exemptions to childhood vaccination requirements at childcare centers. Confused? Our colleagues at the Daily Montanan break down the action this week from the legislative interim committee that provides oversight for the state health department.
Eric — One guess what prominent social media platform is involved here: “He had inadvertently transformed into a warrior on the front lines of the internet’s weirdest, lowest-stakes culture war.”
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