Montana COVID-19 testing
Montana COVID-19 testing lab
Montana COVID-19 testing lab
Boulder River Bridge view
Boulder River Bridge view
Combat Crochet
Combat Crochet
Montana Governor Steve Bullock at Innovate Montana 2019
Montana Governor Steve Bullock at Innovate Montana 2019
Bikers and Hikers stranded at Mystic Lake Cabin
Bikers and Hikers stranded at Mystic Lake Cabin
Goat Fire mapped at 300 acres
Goat Fire fought in rugged terrain
Goat Fire fought in rugged terrain
Griz management exceeds sustainable mortality rate
Griz management exceeds sustainable mortality rate


Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s office met last month with MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who spent November lobbying state attorneys general to challenge 2020 election results at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mike Lindell
Mike Lindell at "An Address to Young Americans" event, featuring President Donald Trump, hosted by Students for Trump and Turning Point Action at Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona. Lindell met with Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen's office Nov. 10, 2021. Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

After months of pressing their case with various elected officials in Montana, several people who have raised questions and allegations about the state’s 2020 election met last month with Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s staff.

Spokesperson Emilee Cantrell told Montana Free Press via email this week that members of Knudsen’s staff, whom she did not identify, met Nov. 10 at the attorney general’s office with Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Stevensville, and an unspecified number of “guests” including MyPillow founder Mike Lindell. MTFP first learned about the meeting from a Facebook video posted by the organization Richland County Republicans. The video, recorded during a Nov. 15 “election security symposium” held at the Richland County Extension Office, features Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Glendive, informing the gathering that Manzella and Lindell had presented Knudsen with information they claim supports their allegations of election fraud in the 2020 election. Phalen mentioned that Douglas Frank, an Ohio mathematician who spoke at a similar symposium in Ravalli County in late September, was also at the meeting.

“The purpose of the meeting was to present evidence of election irregularities and vulnerabilities to the AG for consideration, with the goal of having him sign on in support of the lawsuit Lindell intended to drop on Nov. 23rd,” Manzella wrote. “Ultimately, he did not sign onto the lawsuit.”

According to multiple national news stories, Lindell spent much of November attempting to garner support from state attorneys general for a lawsuit challenging the 2020 presidential election results before the U.S. Supreme Court. In September, Lindell vowed publicly to file the complaint before Thanksgiving as part of his ongoing effort to reinstall Donald Trump in the White House. But no attorneys general signed on to the lawsuit, prompting a rebuke from Lindell ahead of the holiday weekend. Lindell has not filed a lawsuit with the court.

In a livestream video on Nov. 22, Lindell accused Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, of pressuring attorneys general not to support his complaint.

“How dare the RNC try and stop this case from getting to the Supreme Court,” Lindell said. “Shame on you, RNC.”

Despite claims made by Lindell, Frank and others, the broad consensus among political scientists, researchers and election officials across the United States is that there is no evidence of substantial, widespread voter fraud of the sort suggested by Trump and his supporters. 

Fire ecologist: Central, eastern Montana at above normal potential for significant fire activity in December

BY:  - DECEMBER 2, 2021 5:44 PM

 Provided by the Fergus County Sheriff’s Office with credit to Sgt. Jeremy Johnson.


Carl Seilstad was born and raised in Fergus County, and the fire that burned down Denton is the worst he’s seen.

“I cannot remember this type of devastation within a single community,” said Seilstad, a Fergus County commissioner, on Thursday afternoon.

In a phone call, Seilstad said two other commissioners were in Denton at a fire briefing, and he was at the office working on an emergency disaster declaration. He said all the commissioners planned to head to Denton on Friday to meet with Gov. Greg Gianforte.

 Provided by the Fergus County Sheriff’s Office for the Daily Montanan.


According to a social media post Thursday from the Fergus County Sheriff’s Office, high winds Wednesday pushed a fire into the town of roughly 300 and burned 25 structures including grain elevators and bridges. A later post noted 13 residences were a complete loss. The Sheriff’s Office also said rural fire agencies were working to prevent the blaze from spreading and anticipated the work would continue for “several more days.”

Late on Thursday afternoon, InciWeb listed the cause of the burn as under investigation. Although the Sheriff’s Office said it planned to release residents from evacuation orders Thursday, it also warned people that high winds were still in the forecast, so they shouldn’t let down their guards.

“At this time Sheriff (Rick) Vaughn would like to stress the fact that there was no serious injuries or loss of life during this unprecedented event,” the post said. “We can replace property, but we cannot replace a life. Sheriff Vaughn would like to thank the community and emergency services from across Montana for doing what Montanans do when their neighbors are having a bad day.  Montanans step up and lend a hand and get the job done.”

Fire ecologist Philip Higuera said the fire is, on the one hand, surprising in that such blazes typically don’t take place in Montana in December. On the other hand, he said the stage is set for such an event, and the National Interagency Fire Center’s outlook points to just that geographic area.

“There’s one point in the West that has above normal potential for significant fire activity in December, and it is central and eastern Montana,” said Higuera, a professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation.

Exceptional drought means the vegetation is dry, and some areas in central Montana are seeing record low fuel moisture, Higuera said — or record high dryness: “The fuels out there right now are hanging out in conditions that are similar in mid July.”

In July and August, people think about being careful with sparks from fires, he said. Now, Higuera said people will need to start thinking about the same thing later in the year since fires this time of year are nearly always started by humans: “As climate changes, we will need to adapt.”

He also said the drought in the region is part of a broader pattern of a lengthening fire season, with the shoulders of the season starting earlier and extending later:  “That’s a clear pattern that we see across the West. As that pattern continues, these types of events will become more and more common.”

In Fergus County, Commissioner Seilstad said it’s the third big fire in just a matter of a few months, and he worries about the toll the blazes are taking on volunteer firefighters, who have responded to all of them. He said he has some concerns about the mounting pressures on people in general.

“With COVID and the drought that we’ve had in the agricultural community and now this fire, it’s going to be a tremendous amount of stress on individuals,” Seilstad said.

He said he hopes the people can get the help they need, but he said rebuilding the community will be a process and take time. People may be able to move in with friends or relatives temporarily.

“But the housing in Fergus County is nonexistent,” he said. “It’s not like you can run out and find a place to rent.”

At the same time, he said, residents of Jordan have been offering to help because they have experienced a similar situation, people have donated bread, sandwiches, bottled water, and clothing, and he described Ryan Peterson, the disaster and emergency services coordinator, as a “godsend” who has been “working his little hienie off at Denton.”

The fire had burned more than 10,000 acres since it started Tuesday, but Seilstad said people in Fergus County know how to get through tough times, and they’ll get through this disaster. He asked people to send their thoughts and prayers to community members.

“They’re pretty resilient when it comes to pitching in together and rebuilding when it comes to something that needs to be rebuilt,” Seilstad said.

If you need help

Fergus County Sheriff’s Office: If you have been misplaced due to the loss of your house, please call the American Red Cross at 1-800-272-6668 or stop by the Civic Center 309 5th Ave South in Lewistown, MT. You can also contact the local Salvation Army at 406-366-2982 or 206-280-9787.

If you would like to make a monetary donation there is a fund set up at the Farmers State Bank at 423 Broadway Denton, MT or call 406-567-2226.

Commissioner Troy Downing:  Call 444-2040 if you need help with your insurance company or go to csimt.gov. 


BY:  -
DECEMBER 2, 2021 1:46 PM

 The Madison River near Ennis, Montana (Photo via Flickr | CC-BY-SA 2.0).


A malfunction at the Hebgen Dam has caused water levels along the Madison River to drop to nearly dry in some places, and has caused immediate fishing restrictions there.

Officials from NorthWestern Energy said they’re working as quickly as they can to restore the flow, which is critical to one of the state’s most prized rivers and fisheries. The concern is that water levels had dropped too low, exposing spawning beds where fish lay eggs.

NWE, which owns and manages the dam, said that a “gate component failed on the dam’s outlet structure,” which reduced the flow.

In a news release, NorthWestern’s Jo Dee Black said that crews have been working around the clock on a repair plan and the strategy is to have the water restored as quickly as possible. The problem was first detected and reported on Tuesday afternoon.

Black said that water was released over the dam spillway on Tuesday, which adds flow and provided a small increase to the river flow.

NWE and state officials are asking the public to avoid the Hebgen Dam area.

The Bozeman Chronicle reported that volunteers from the state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks were onsite trying to save as many fish as possible.

Sidney Health Center announced in mid-November that it will comply with an upcoming federal vaccine requirement for millions of health care workers.

The meeting was advertised on Facebook by the group Conservatives United for Richland County (CURG) as being open to the public but prohibiting photos and recordings. The advertisements also said that only Sidney Health Center employees would be allowed to engage in discussions with the invited speakers, including Knudsen, Maria Wyrock of Montanans for Vaccine Choice and state Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Stevensville. 

Sidney Health Center spokesperson Rita Steinbeisser said Monday that the event was not associated with the hospital and that the organization’s senior administrators did not plan to attend. She said she would not speak on behalf of the hospital’s employees regarding the hospital’s compliance with the vaccine mandate.

“This is a decision that was regulated by CMS, and so we are doing what is recommended by CMS and what other hospitals are doing around the state,” Steinbeisser said. 

The Daily Montanan reported Monday that the Montana Hospital Association is unaware of a hospital in the state that plans to oppose the mandate.

Knudsen spokesperson Emilee Cantrell said Monday afternoon that she did not have any prepared remarks to provide to Montana Free Press and declined to record the attorney general’s address, which was delivered via Zoom, saying only that Knudsen “plans to discuss state law” and updates to Montana’s lawsuit against the vaccine mandate.

“If Sidney Health Center [and the hospital CEO] do not relent, they’re not going to have a hospital … They will have a two-bit clinic where the best somebody might get is stitches.”


The event took place at Fellowship Baptist Church in Sidney and was coordinated in part by the congregation’s pastor, Jordan Hall. In an interview with MTFP Monday, Hall, a CURG member who publishes the conservative website Montana Daily Gazette, downplayed his role in organizing the event even as he acknowledged that he promoted it on Facebook and personally invited Knudsen to speak. 

Hall said he wanted to provide a gathering place for frustrated hospital employees and that he is concerned the hospital will lose valuable medical expertise if it requires vaccination as a condition of employment. Hall said his wife is a hospital employee.

“If Sidney Health Center and [the hospital CEO] do not relent, they’re not going to have a hospital,” Hall said. “… They will have a two-bit clinic where the best somebody might get is stitches.”

Hospital CEO Jennifer Doty has estimated that two-third of the hospital’s staff is vaccinated, according to the Sidney Herald. 

The Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for health care facilities largely does not make exceptions for employees based on job title or level of patient interaction. Employees are allowed to submit requests for religious and medical exemptions, which the hospital reviews.

The mandate was temporarily blocked by a federal judge Monday for health care workers in 10 states that filed a legal challenge in early November. That group does not include Montana, which joined a separate and later lawsuit against the mandate at Knudsen’s direction.

According to Hall, one of the goals of the meeting was for opponents of vaccine mandates to discuss legal “options” with hospital employees who don’t want to get vaccinated and have not been approved for religious or medical exemptions.

“Because we’re afraid that people are going to quit and then find out the next day they didn’t have to,” Hall said. “… We want people to be fired instead of quitting.”

In a Facebook post following the event, CURG pledged to push for the resignation of Sidney Health Center leadership and the board of directors. The post pointed to a “Religious Liberty Fund” associated with Hall’s church to solicit “money necessary to fight legally for SHC employees, with attorneys from around the country with national legal organizations if push comes to shove.”

Protesters in Sidney and elsewhere in the state rallied against the health care worker vaccine mandate on Sunday, a display of the fierce opposition to governmental efforts to boost inoculation nationwide. The Biden administration has repeatedly argued that vaccinations are the best way to prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19

Knudsen, along with Gov. Greg Gianforte and many other Republican elected officials in Montana, have for months voiced objection to mandates and reiterated their stance that medical decisions regarding vaccination should be made by individuals. 


Mirroring trends impacting resort communities across the nation, housing prices are up and supplies are down in Whitefish.

Flathead county forum housing crisis
Civil and business leaders from across the Flathead Valley gathered in Whitefish Nov. 17 to talk about the area's growing affordable housing problem during a forum hosted by the Flathead County Democrats. Credit: Justin Franz / MTFP

Economists say there are a number of reasons for the labor shortages pinching communities across the country, from people being choosier about what they do for work to retirement — but Docter and many others in Whitefish place the blame squarely on a lack of affordable housing. Docter said he personally knows of dozens of people who used to work in Whitefish’s service industries but have left in the last two years because they couldn’t find a place to live. Some have moved to less expensive communities in the Flathead and found jobs there. Others have left the Flathead Valley or Montana altogether. 

“Every one of us knows someone who has left Whitefish,” Docter said. “It’s a crisis.”

Docter was a panelist at an affordable housing forum in Whitefish on Wednesday that featured representatives from local government, nonprofits and the business community. The event was hosted by the Flathead Democratic Party and co-sponsored by the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors, the Kalispell Education Association and NeighborWorks Montana. 


Out of house and home

As home prices soar and more people move in, Flathead Valley residents find themselves stymied by a dwindling supply of rental properties.

Another issue is the proliferation of short-term rentals. In 2014, there were just 31 short-term rentals in the 59937 zip code, which includes all of Whitefish. Now there are more than 1,000, according to AirDNA, a site that tracks rentals on Airbnb, Vrbo and other vacation rental services. 

“Every one of us knows someone who has left Whitefish. It’s a crisis.”


Whitefish is expected to produce another housing needs assessment in 2022, and many stakeholders believe it will show a housing situation even more dire than the 2016 assessment. 

Over the decades, Whitefish has tried a number of methods to address its housing issues, including the establishment of a housing authority and inclusionary zoning that required developers to include a certain number of deed-restricted residences in any project or pay fees. Whitefish and Bozeman were the only two communities in the state to have such a zoning program, but both were torpedoed earlier this year when Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a bill prohibiting them

On Wednesday, panelists at the housing forum in Whitefish lamented the end of that inclusionary zoning program, but offered other solutions to the community housing problems. Kalispell city councilperson Ryan Hunter said the Flathead’s continuing growth will require a new mindset among locals about zoning and where new homes are built. He pinned part of the blame on nimbyism and restrictive zoning that doesn’t allow for dense housing developments.

“When your community is going through great change like ours is, it’s not fair to say, ‘Well, my neighborhood can’t change.’ You have to be part of the solution,” he said. “Nimbyism is one of the biggest barriers to affordable housing.”

One proposed development mentioned multiple times during the forum is the Mountain Gateway project at the base of Big Mountain, which has become the subject of a contentious debate in Whitefish. The development calls for 318 housing units on 30 acres north of downtown, with 32 of the rental units being deed restricted. Opponents say the development would result in additional traffic, especially in winter when thousands of vehicles turn onto Big Mountain Road every day to reach Whitefish Mountain Resort. They also say 32 affordable units isn’t enough to address the community’s housing needs. Proponents of the project say any long-term rental units — deed-restricted or not — would help the city address its needs. After a long hearing last month, the Whitefish Planning Board is having a second hearing about the project this week

Meanwhile, local businesses desperate for help are exploring their own solutions to the housing crisis. This summer, Docter and a number of other local business owners formed the Whitefish Workforce Housing Project to lease housing and then rent it to their employees at a discounted rate. Docter said he is leasing three different homes to his employees, and that the project is preparing to provide 25 to 50 units at a discounted rate for service workers in the coming months. The project’s steering committee is planning to form a nonprofit cooperative in the coming months. Docter said the units will cost workers about $700 a month. 

Docter also said timing is of the essence, and if the local community doesn’t step up soon to solve the housing crisis, the town will never be able to solve it.

If nothing is done, he said, “It’s only going to get worse.”