Backyard flocks remain vulnerable

May 5, 2022

 A flock of chickens (Photo by Stephen Ausmus | Agricultural Research Service, USDA).


Montana is one of 32 states that has reported Highly Pathogenic Avian Flu this year. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on Wednesday, the highly contagious, highly deadly bird disease has killed more than 78,000 birds in the state, but it poses little, if any, risk to humans.

And while Montana’s numbers pale in comparison to other harder hit states, like Iowa where 13.4 million of the national total of 36.9 million birds have been euthanized or killed, officials with the Montana State Department of Livestock are urging small producers, especially those with backyard flocks, which may come into contact with wild birds, to take precautions.

Don’t let your fowl go afoul

Here’s how you can protect your poultry, according to the Montana Department of Livestock. The department encourages poultry producers to implement the following biosecurity measures to protect flocks:

● Prevent contact between wild or migratory birds and domestic poultry, including access by wild
birds to feed and water sources.
● House birds indoors to the extent possible to limit exposure to wild or migratory birds.
● Limit visitor access to areas where birds are housed.
● Use dedicated clothing and protective footwear when caring for domestic poultry.
● Immediately isolate sick animals and contact your veterinarian or MDOL.

Dr. Marty Zaluski, state veterinarian with the Montana Department of Livestock, said the disease is highly contagious and highly deadly, often killing between 80 and 90 percent of fowl that are infected. Wild birds appear to have more of a genetic tolerance to the disease.

The last major outbreak of HPAI was in 2015, Zaluski said.

Already this year, several notable cases have been reported including one in Billings where a popular flock of wild turkeys that lived near the campus of Montana State University-Billings has been decimated.

Zaluski said that most commercial producers have extensive biohazard controls that help mitigate the risk of the disease. However, those smaller producers who let chickens or turkeys possibly come into contact with other birds, like ducks, have seen the effects of the disease. Right now, Zaluski said the danger is higher for backyard producers because often large-scale commercial producers don’t allow contact with birds from the outside.

“There are things backyard poultry producers can do,” he said. “I had chickens, and I hate to see them kept inside, especially during Spring when they’re stir crazy, but keeping them confined or putting up netting for wild birds may help reduce the risk.”

When a flock of domesticated birds are found with the disease, the protocol is euthanasia, Zaluski said, because of the disease’s high fatality rate. He also said that in order to keep America’s international trade agreements intact, commercial poultry producers must eliminate any flock with an outbreak of the disease. He said that while the disease is not transmissible to humans, entire flocks are removed because health officials don’t want the rapidly moving disease to mutate into a strain that could put humans at risk.

“It’s when low pathogenic mutates into a highly pathogenic disease that it starts to be a concern,” Zaluski said.

In that way, it’s not unlike human influenza where certain strains or variants seem to be mild, and other years see much more illness or death.

“It’s inhumane to let these animals suffer and die,” Zaluski said. “We also don’t want to create a disease factory where a virus could develop a novel mutation.”

One of the challenges is staying ahead of the disease, Zaluski said. The incubation period, which is how long it takes from exposure for an animal to become symptomatic, is as low as 36 hours with the illness spreading quickly and virulently.

“By the time we detect it, it’s almost always too late,” Zaluski said.

Scientists believe the 1918 influenza epidemic may have been a case where swine flu in pigs and avian flu in birds combined to create a deadly human flu strain.

Historically, most of the disease has subsided by the beginning to middle of June, and Zaluski anticipates the same would likely be the case this year.

Commercial egg and meat producers have a government reimbursement system for the loss, but those don’t come near to offsetting the costs completely.

“It’s not going to make anyone rich or whole, but the point is to reduce the economic impact,” Zaluski said of the federal reimbursement program.

In 2015, Zalusky said food prices in poultry spiked because of the limited supply and that could happen again with the avian flu, but he said once production ramped up again, the cost of chicken and turkey subsided.

While typically a wheat and beef state, Montana has seen a recent uptick in poultry production. According to the latest production statistics, 2020 saw more than $48 million in poultry production, which includes chickens and turkeys. That is more than double the amount of business in just five years, Zaluski said, which demonstrates it’s a growing part of Montana’s agricultural industry.

Across the United States, the USDA said that 171 commercial flocks and 108 backyard flocks have been affected.


Seven in ten respondents to a poll commissioned by the University of Montana described a lack of affordable housing as an “extremely serious” or “very serious” problem facing the state

A striking majority of poll respondents identified “lack of affordable housing” as a problem in Montana, with 77% calling the issue “extremely” or “very” serious. Development sprawling into what were once ranches or open lands was identified as an extremely serious or very serious problem by 55% of respondents. A similar segment of respondents, 57%, said growth and development is happening too fast in their communities.

Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative director Rick Graetz said in a release discussing the survey that its results indicate Montanans are anxious about the effects the state’s increasing popularity is having on their communities.

“Growth is important for Montana’s economy, but decision-makers should also consider some of the anxiety we are seeing over its pace and impact on the land,” Graetz said. “This survey shows Montanans clearly want to keep our state livable, affordable and continue efforts to protect open lands and wildlife.”

The initiative, housed under UM’s geography department, works with issues around the Crown of the Continent, a Northern Rockies ecosystem that includes Glacier National Park, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes stretches of central and southern Montana bordering Yellowstone National Park.

Montana’s overall population rose by 10% between 2010 and 2020, according to U.S. Census data, with particularly fast growth around urban areas such as Bozeman and Kalispell. Gallatin County, home to Bozeman, led the pack in terms of growth rate, adding new residents at three times the statewide rate.

Many parts of Montana have also seen considerable home price appreciation in recent years, especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The median single-family home price in Bozeman was $725,000 in March according to the Gallatin Association of Realtors, up from less than $500,000 two years ago. The median sales price in Flathead County in March was $609,000, according to Montana Regional MLS, up from $345,000 in March 2020. 



Judge issued temporary injunction in lawsuit, but Montana officials not explaining delay

May 3, 2022

 Attorney Akilah Lane speaks to Yellowstone County District Judge Michael G. Moses at a hearing on Dec. 22, 2021 on a challenge to Senate Bill 280. Seated at the attorneys’ table is Alex Rate of the ACLU of Montana (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Even though a judge in Yellowstone County has issued a temporary injunction, stopping a law passed by the 2021 Legislature from taking effect, the Daily Montanan has confirmed that individuals wanting to change a sex designation on a birth certificate still cannot.

Nearly two weeks ago, Yellowstone County District Judge Michael G. Moses ruled that the law change that prohibited individuals from changing the sex designation of male or female on a birth certificate without first providing proof of a surgical procedure and court order likely violated the state’s constitution. In a ruling, he issued a temporary injunction, which is not a final decision, but allowed the law to revert to the standard before the new law was passed.

Prior to the 2021 law, Montana had a one-page form to change the status of a birth certificate.

Ashley Nerbovig, a reporter for the Montana Television Network, first reported a transgender man had attempted to change his birth certificate but was denied by the state. On Monday morning, the Daily Montanan confirmed with an employee that even though the law has been enjoined and no appeal had been filed, she had been ordered by the state Department of Public Health and Human Services not to implement the previous process. The employee said that she was not a lawyer and had no further direction, and was awaiting guidance from the administration. She said she was keeping contact information of people who had called about a change.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, which has successfully argued the case, said it had no comment on the current status.

The Daily Montanan asked the Montana Attorney General’s Office for clarification or if it had plans to appeal the injunction on Monday.

“We’re not participating in your blog,” said spokesperson Emilee Cantrell.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services acknowledged that it had also received questions from the Daily Montanan on Monday, including whether it planned to appeal the ruling, or the process it was planning for changing the designation on a birth certificate, but by the end of the day, it had not provided answers or clarification.

Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

 The State of Montana is declining to apply for federal funds that would help feed children, saying the need has been dropping and the administrative burden is significant. (By Ella Olsson via for the Daily Montanan)


People worried about Montana losing out on $36.6 million in money for children this summer continue to advocate that the state submit a plan to secure the federal funds for food.

“We’re definitely aware that it’s important to parents,” said Wren Greaney, advocacy coordinator with the Montana Food Bank Network. “We heard from previous rounds of Pandemic EBT that it did make a big difference for them. It did help them make ends meet.”

The Pandemic EBT program provides a purchasing card families can use to buy food, or an electronic benefits transfer card.

In March, a Department of Public Health and Human Services administrator confirmed to the legislative Education Interim Committee that Montana had opted against submitting a plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for school year funding, citing a drop in need as the pandemic waned as well as administrative burdens.


Benefits to Montana

A fact sheet from the Montana Food Bank Network notes Montana has taken advantage of the Pandemic EBT program since March 2020 and has provided $67 million in benefits to children. The fact sheet notes the funds can be spent at more than 750 SNAP retailers in the state including many farmers markets, and that the program reduced food insufficiency among SNAP households by 28 percent, citing a Brookings Institute study.

In order for Montana to get federal money for the summer, estimated at $36.6 million, the state must submit a plan for the school year, said a March letter from 60 organizations including the Montana Food Bank Network. But at the meeting last month, the Health Department administrator said the need had dropped as much as 50 percent from fall 2020 to spring 2021.

This school year, the drop has “undoubtedly” continued due to continued school re-openings, and the number of eligible children would be less than the previous two years, said Health Department spokesperson Jon Ebelt in an email. Ebelt also said that if the rules change at the federal level, Montana would reconsider its position on not applying for the money.

“Should the Biden Administration provide states with P-EBT flexibility and allow Montana to design a plan that meets its needs, DPHHS will reconsider participating in the program,” Ebelt said in an email this week.

In the meantime, the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center said March 2022 was the busiest month in the organization’s history of 40 years. In 23 days, the nonprofit provided 12,041 services to 4,317 households, and it counted 11 days when staff served more than 200 families, “something we only see two or three times in a month,” said Jessica Allred, interim co-executive director in an email Thursday.

“We hope that the state will do the right thing and continue to support families through these challenging times,” Allred said.

The March 11 letter from the Montana Food Bank Network and other organizations went to to Gov. Greg Gianforte and Health Department Director Adam Meier. It said the money the state might be passing up would provide nutrition to children and contribute to the state’s economy.

This week, Greaney said she knows families have continued to contact the Governor’s Office and the Health Department to advocate for the funds. She also said a variety of options exist for simplifying any plan the state submits, or reduce the administrative burden, and the clock is ticking.

“If the state doesn’t create a plan for the school year, they will not be able to issue the benefits for summer,” Greaney said. “So that’s really a big concern.”

In an email, the Health Department’s Ebelt said the program was started for a specific purpose, and the state has made its decision after evaluating the situation in Montana.

“It’s important to note that P-EBT was established to ensure access to the equivalent of school meals when the pandemic forced school closures,” Ebelt said in an email. “In making the decision to not pursue this latest round of P-EBT, we looked at the current situation in Montana balanced against the significant administrative burden to operate the P-EBT program.

“Most Montana schools remained open during the pandemic with some children in and out of the classroom for short periods of time.” 

Ebelt also pointed to other programs run through the Health Department that support families, such as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which serves 90,000 Montanans each month and saw a 25 percent increase in benefits in October 2021; The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides free emergency food assistance to low income Montanans; and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, which provides USDA Foods to families on Indian reservations who are income eligible.

He pointed to programs the Montana Office of Public Instruction runs as well, such as free school meals to all students during the school year, and the Summer Food Service Program, which offers free nutritious meals and snacks to children throughout the summer.

At the Missoula Food Bank, Allred said inflation and fuel prices are starting to put pressure on families, and the nonprofit was “atypically” busy at least a couple of weeks in March. She also said one third of the services the Food Bank provides goes to children.

As relief hits households, Allred said, fewer families tap into the Food Bank’s emergency help, and the organization can track the relationship between adequate support and family stability. But “when those programs go away, it shows an increase in need for charitable services.”

Children are particularly at risk in the summer, Allred said, and she said some programs and benefits will soon sunset or expire: “We absolutely anticipate that families are approaching a benefits cliff. Some of that they’re already experiencing. And that need for emergency services will increase as those other supports go away.”

Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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