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

The report also showed Native people in Montana were four times more likely to die from the infection

 NOVEMBER 1, 2021 1:39 PM

 COVID-19 vaccine is stored at -80 degrees celsius in the pharmacy at Roseland Community Hospital on Dec. 18, 2020 in Chicago. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)


COVID-19 is expected to be the third leading cause of death in Montana for the second consecutive year in 2021 with Native Americans four times more likely to die from the infection than white residents, according to a new report released by the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

From Jan. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021, DPHHS recorded 2,100 COVID-19 deaths in Montana — 1,258 in 2020 and 842 in the first nine months of 2021. Of those deaths, 69 percent also had an underlying condition like cardiovascular disease, diabetes or another respiratory disease.

Public health officials have repeatedly called for more Montanans to get vaccinated. As of Monday, around 55 percent of state residents were fully vaccinated.

“I can’t stress enough that these COVID-19 related deaths are almost entirely preventable,” said DPHHS acting State Medical Officer Dr. Maggie Cook-Shimanek in a news release announcing the report. “Vaccination is the best protection against COVID-19 infection and at preventing severe COVID-19 outcomes, such as hospitalization and death.”

The state reported 1,137 new cases and 20 new deaths on Monday. According to the New York Times COVID-19 tracker Montana has an average daily death rate per 100,000 of 1.32 — the highest in the country. It also has the highest number of average daily hospitalizations per 100,000 people with a rate of 42; and the second-highest average daily cases per 100,000 people with a rate of 71.

While mortality rates by age group, sex, and race in Montana were lower compared to the rest of the U.S., the COVID-19 mortality rate among Native persons in Montana was 108% higher than Native persons in the U.S.

The median age of COVID-19 deaths among non-native people was 78 years with the youngest recorded death being 24 and the oldest 103. Among the Native population, the median age of death was 68, with the youngest being 30 and the oldest 97. The mortality rate was also 56 percent higher among males than females in Montana.

Prior to the pandemic, the leading causes of death in Montana were heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, cerebrovascular disease and non‐motor vehicle accidents. Heart disease and cancer remain the top two leading causes of death in the state, according to the report.

“These data indicate that COVID-19 remains a leading cause of death in Montana. Presently, COVID-19 mortality is, largely, preventable,” the report read. “In addition to vaccination, DPHHS encourages all Montana residents and visitors to exercise personal responsibility and take precautionary measures to slow the spread of the virus, including wearing a face covering when appropriate, avoiding large crowds, staying home when not feeling well, and washing hands frequently.”

Almost a million Montana acres burned, and the state has spent $47 million on suppression efforts.

Boulder 2700 Fore Montana
The Boulder 2700 Fire photographed in the early morning of Aug. 1. Credit: Ronan Volunteer Fire Department

The state’s first major winter storm dropped snow on parts of southern Montana early this week, signaling the final act of an active fire season that had prompted Gov. Greg Gianforte to issue a wildfire emergency declaration in July and mobilize hundreds of National Guard troops to assist in suppression efforts. 

Nearly 940,000 acres have burned across the state this year, the highest tally since the record-setting 2017 season that prompted lawmakers to revisit their budget. Part of the season’s intensity can be attributed to an expansive drought that stretched statewide and continues to vex Montanans reliant upon a healthy water supply. The 2021 season was also notable for its early start, the late-season fires that made big pushes, and the persistence of poor air quality Montanans faced due to wildfire smoke. 

How much of Montana burned

20212020201920182017201620152014201320120200,000400,000600,000800,0001,000,0001,200,000Acres burned
Source: Montana Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation, National Interagency Fire Center

One of the state’s flashier fires, Robertson Draw, started south of Red Lodge before the official start of summer. A Bridger resident who spilled gasoline in dry grass while trying to repair his dirt bike started the fire on June 13. Within 48 hours it had ballooned to a 21,000-acre blaze visible from Red Lodge’s Main Street.

By July 14, Gianforte had issued both drought and wildfire emergency declarations, and on July 22 he called up National Guard troops to help with the state’s wildfire response. A total of 594 National Guard personnel aided the state’s response over the summer, providing support for aviation, security and ground operations. 

In late July and early August the season ramped up even more, with the total numbers of acres burned across the state nearly doubling in the span of a week. Big fires burning along coal seams wreaked havoc on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, prompting evacuations and resulting in the loss of 12 secondary structures. During a particularly hot and windy period July 28-29, the PF Fire made a 16-mile run and went on to burn 66,134 acres of grass, sagebrush and timber east of Hardin. A week and a half later, the Richard Spring and Lame Deer fires started between Colstrip and Lame Deer. The Richard Spring Fire was the state’s largest wildfire this season, topping 170,000 acres.

Around the same time land managers in eastern Montana were trying to tame coal seam fires, the Boulder 2700 Fire on Flathead Lake kept firefighters busy with intense wind and high temperatures that resisted suppression efforts. A quarter of the 54 primary residences that burned across the state this year were casualties of the Boulder 2700 Fire. The total number of structures destroyed across the state, including outbuildings, was 113.

Aside from physical destruction, the effects of wildfire season were felt broadly this summer. Even Montanans who didn’t see a single flame found themselves tangling with smoky and occasionally unhealthy air caused by fires near and far for much of July, August and September. 

Air quality rating category
Based on concentrations of airborne particulates as measured by monitoring stations
1 – Good2 – Moderate3 – Unhealthy for sensitive groups4 – Unhealthy5 – Very unhealthy6 – Hazardous
Data from EPA AirNow program.
Jun.Jul.Aug.Sep.Oct.BillingsSMTWTFSJun.Jul.Aug.Sep.Oct.MissoulaSMTWTFSJun.Jul.Aug.Sep.Oct.Great FallsSMTWTFSJun.Jul.Aug.Sep.Oct.BozemanSMTWTFSJun.Jul.Aug.Sep.Oct.HelenaSMTWTFSJun.Jul.Aug.Sep.Oct.Columbia FallsSMTWTFSJun.Jul.Aug.Sep.Oct.ButteSMTWTFSJun.Jul.Aug.Sep.Oct.HavreSMTWTFSJun.Jul.Aug.Sep.Oct.LewistownSMTWTFSJun.Jul.Aug.Sep.Oct.SidneySMTWTFS

According to airborne particulate data collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow program, a monitoring station in Billings recorded only one day in all of July when air quality wasn’t categorized as at least moderately poor. A monitoring station in Bozeman recorded only four good air quality days in July, all in the first week of the month.

The last week of July and first week of August were particularly brutal for smoke across much of the state. Bozeman recorded a five-day streak of air quality rated as unhealthy for sensitive groups, and Helena recorded a four-day stretch.

After a couple of key precipitation events calmed things down in late August, a late-season run of fires in the central part of the state including the 12,800-acre South Moccasin Fire near Lewistown and the Crown Mountain Fire west of Augusta served as a reminder that the vast majority of the state is still deep in drought. Both fires started Oct. 4 and are under investigation. The South Moccasin Fire has been fully contained. The Crown Mountain Fire is one of 21 fires still burning as of Oct. 15, but suppression efforts were aided by 2 inches of snow earlier this week — a cold, wet weather event that land managers usually consider a “season-ending event.” 


About half — 52% — of the state’s 2,555 wildfires have been deemed human-caused. Twenty-seven percent of the fires were ruled natural starts — started by lightning or in coal seams — and 502 are listed as having unknown or undetermined causes.

According to the governor’s office, the state has spent $47.5 million on fire suppression efforts through Oct 13. That number doesn’t include $9.2 million in federal cost-share reimbursements that have been secured by the state.

“With a long and difficult fire season, our team at the DNRC achieved fantastic results for Montana taxpayers by ensuring our federal partners pay their fair share of costs this fire year,” Gianforte said in an emailed statement. “I strongly commend DNRC officials for being good stewards and protectors of taxpayer dollars.”

The governor also said that with the bulk of wildfire season behind him, he’s shifting his attention to forest management, part of a larger effort to increase the number of forest acres treated with some mix of prescribed burning, thinning and logging.



Oct 13, 2021
BY:  - OCTOBER 12, 2021 10:30 AM

 (Provided by Pixabay via Pexels.com)


A University of Montana Computer Science faculty member who had posted disparaging remarks about women, LGBTQ+ people and Muslims on his blog is on leave pending an investigation, UM said Tuesday.

“That action was made last night,” said UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz in an email. “Mr. (Rob) Smith will no longer be teaching and he will not be physically on campus during his leave.”

Kuntz said Smith’s classes would continue as scheduled with another instructor, and he said the university’s goal would be to make the transition with as little disruption as possible for students in Computer Science.

In a statement released Monday, Smith said he looked forward to a fast resolution of the investigation. Smith had worked at UM since 2014, according to his LinkedIn page.

 Rob Smith, University of Montana Computer Science faculty member. (Provided by UM.)


“I am disheartened by some of the conclusions that have been expressed about my role at the University of Montana,” Smith wrote. “Any thoughts expressed on my personal blog do not, and have not, been made in my capacity as a faculty member, but have been made as a private citizen, and any such thoughts do not represent the University of Montana.

“I regret any offense caused by my expression of views as a private citizen outside of the workplace. I do not and have never treated students or colleagues differently. I look forward to the expeditious resolution of this situation in a manner consistent with university policies, as well as principles of freedom of expression that I support for all individuals.”

Monday, the Montana Kaimin reported that Smith had posted derogatory comments on his blog, “Upward Thought,” and also that the tenured faculty member had started deleting posts after the newspaper began asking questions.

“Your physical attractiveness is your most valuable asset in finding a husband,” the Kaimin quoted Smith as writing to women. “This value peaks from 16-18, fades slowly until 25, then starts fading quickly. Your pool of potential husbands shrinks significantly with every year past 18.”

In a statement the same day, UM President Seth Bodnar said he was disgusted by Smith’s homophobic and misogynistic comments and had directed university officials to take immediate action and investigate.

Tuesday, Betta Lyon Delsordo, a student in Computer Science and Spanish, said she appreciated the swift action from the administration. She said many students were uncomfortable to have to take classes from Smith and also worried they would face retaliation if they boycotted classes.

“I think it’s just a good decision for everyone,” Lyon Delsordo said.

She said she was pleased to know that UM administrators consider the activity unacceptable, and she said faculty in Computer Science have been supportive across the board as well. Lyon Delsordo was part of a group of students who launched a website calling for Smith to be fired and discussing his posts.

The website quoted Smith as saying the following: “The fact is that one cannot both be a peaceful Muslim and a faithful Muslim. In other words, Muslims are only peaceful to the degree that they are not Muslims.”

The site also said Smith’s posts were concerning because he worked with female students: “Most worryingly, he claims multiple times that girls are most sexually attractive at age 16 and that it is a shame that society doesn’t allow older men to marry 16-year-old girls … His comments and behavior make it unacceptable for him to remain a university professor, where he requires young women to visit him alone during his office hours, and so clearly states that he is attracted to teenagers.”

Lyon Delsordo said people should still file complaints if they have had a negative experience with Smith, and she said students will be tracking progress.

“We’ll just be watching the situation and keep the momentum going to spread awareness,” Delsordo said.

If action stalls, and the university isn’t able to make progress, she said students may organize a protest or a walkout, but at this point, she said students are satisfied.

“We’ve just been really impressed with their reaction so far,” Lyon Delsordo said.

As a computer scientist, Lyon Delsordo said she believes technology has the power to change the world, but everyone has to be part of it, and diversity in the field is important. She said sexism exists everywhere, not just in higher education or STEM fields.

“It’s something that women know about, and it’s something we talk about, but we’re not always taken seriously,” she said. “It’s really important to remember that when people bring up issues and warning signs, it’s important to listen to them because you don’t know what’s going on. We really have to make a difference and help make these places where women, and where everyone, feels comfortable.”


Oct 11, 2021

BY:  - OCTOBER 7, 2021 3:25 PM

 Supreme Court Justice Jim Rice takes the witness stand in Lewis and Clark County District Court on May 10, 2021


A Lewis and Clark County District judge has come to the same decision as the Montana Supreme Court with a ruling on Wednesday that the Republican-led Legislature inappropriately issued its investigative subpoenas to try and obtain judicial records from high court members.

“The legislature’s authority remains subject to judicial oversight, particularly when those it ‘investigates’ are subjected to unlawful document subpoenas. Such judicial oversight involves the balance of powers between the judicial branch and the legislative branch as well as the executive branch,” District Court Judge Michael McMahon wrote in his ruling.

Supreme Court Justice Jim Rice had fought the subpoenas and argued the Legislature did not have the power to issue April’s flurry of demands. While McMahon sided with Rice in saying the Legislature did not have the power to issue all the subpoenas, he did not grant Rice’s request to quash future legislative subpoenas.

“In this regard, this Court finds that Justice Rice has ‘put the cart before the horse’ in requesting such ‘hypothetical’ declaratory relief,” McMahon wrote.

In a statement on the ruling, Rice defended his actions.

“While none of my emails or communications were improper or inappropriate, I challenged the subpoena in court to defend my office from an unlawful attack, to uphold the integrity of our institutions and constitutional system of separation of powers, and to protect the personal communications of judges,” he wrote. He continued, “today, those principles have been vindicated by the Court, and this decision will provide guidance for proper interactions between the Legislative and Judicial branches in the future.”

McMahon’s ruling against the Legislature is the latest court decision in the inter-branch conflict going on for months between the Legislature and judiciary over accusations from legislative leadership and that members of the judiciary were hiding or deleting public information that would show they were prejudging legislation that may come before them.  At the center of the drama was a poll conducted by the Montana Judges Association that gauged how judges across the state felt about pending legislation — specifically Senate Bill 140, which changed how judicial vacancies are filled in the form.

In a late April letter to Republican leadership, Chief Justice Mike McGrath defended the judiciary’s behavior surrounding the poll. “The branch has an obligation to inform the Legislature as to how proposed legislation affects branch operations. There has been no misuse of state resources.”

Republican lawmakers used the poll to allege bias and misconduct among members of the judicial branch and accused the Supreme Court Administrator of deleting emails related to the polls. The alleged scandal prompted the Legislature to form the Select Committee on Judicial Accountability and Transparency.

In a late April letter to Republican leadership, Chief Justice Mike McGrath defended the judiciary’s behavior. “The branch has an obligation to inform the Legislature as to how proposed legislation affects branch operations. There has been no misuse of state resources.”

“The select committee will continue seeking additional information from the judicial branch and working to fix ethical problems within the judiciary,” said  Senate Republican Spokesman Kyle Schmauch, about Wednesday’s ruling. “The public record emails obtained through the subpoena remain in the possession of the Legislature’s attorneys at the Department of Justice while the attorneys consider an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. McLaughlin’s attorney was informed of that a couple weeks ago.”

In his ruling, McMahon said it is out of the constitutional scope of the Legislature to investigate claims of judicial misconduct.

“The subpoena interferes with the Montana Judicial Standards Commission Constitutional authority and exceeds the Legislature’s investigator authority as to alleged judicial misconduct,” McMahon wrote, referring to a July decision by the high court also ruling against the subpoena use.

In its ruling, the supreme court wrote the subpoenas were out of bounds as they were “far broader than necessary,” seek information that the Legislature could get elsewhere, don’t serve a valid legislative purpose and jeopardize the constitutional rights of other parties.


The Sept. 17 letter was sent to Director Adam Meier via email by 18 staff epidemiologists.

Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services DPHHS

HELENA — In an internal letter delivered last month, scientific staff at the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services criticized the evidence used by health department Director Adam Meier and Gov. Greg Gianforte to justify an August emergency rule discouraging school mask mandates, saying some claims made by the rule were “misleading and false.”

The Sept. 17 letter was sent to Meier via email by Senior Epidemiologist Lisa Richidt and was co-signed by 17 additional staff epidemiologists. Their letter said the rule misrepresented the scientific literature by asserting that masks haven’t been proven effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 and that prolonged mask wearing can harm children.

The result, the scientists said, is a rule that undermines the health department’s credibility, “contributes to the spread of misinformation,” makes it harder for local public health officials to keep their communities safe and fosters divisiveness as school officials determine whether mask mandates are appropriate for their facilities.

The emergency rule has previously been criticized by the Montana Nurses Association, which said it “promotes junk science” in a Sept. 8 memo. The letter from the epidemiologists, however, is the first public indication that discomfort about the evidence used to justify the rule extends into ranks of the state’s staff scientists.

The letter, which Montana Free Press had sought via an unfulfilled public records request, was provided to MTFP this week by an anonymous source. One of its signatories independently verified that the document in MTFP’s possession is the document they signed. 

Gianforte spokesman Travis Hall declined to comment on the epidemiologists’ letter Tuesday, referring an inquiry to the health department.

Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services DPHHS

Montana Nurses Association slams state rule on school mask mandates

On Wednesday, the Montana Nurses Association responded to the Department of Public Health and Human Services’ emergency rule on school mask mandates. The association’s memo said the rule violates state law and “promotes junk science.”

The rule also holds that “there is a body of literature, scientific as well as survey/anecdotal, on the negative health consequences that some individuals, especially some children, experience as a result of prolonged mask wearing.” That claim was sourced to a scientific article that reviewed evidence from 44 studies.

The staff scientists write that only four of those 44 studies were specific to children, and that of those four, three didn’t directly measure health consequences, as opposed to factors such as children’s self-reported comfort after six minutes of masked exercise. The fourth study, they say, concluded that children’s physiological parameters were “well within the acceptable range” after kids wore masks for five minutes.

“As DPHHS employees, it is demoralizing to have the Department issue a Public Health Emergency Rule that is not founded in the science of public health,” the epidemiologists wrote.

Ebelt, the health department spokesman, said Tuesday that Meier has reached out to the agency’s epidemiologists “with an invitation to sit down in person to discuss the emergency rule in more detail, answer questions, and address concerns.”



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Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. His reporting focuses broadly on Montana’s governance and economic opportunity, with particular focus on the state budget and tax policy. He also contributes data reporting across the MTFP newsroom. Before joining the MTFP staff in 2019, he worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network and also earned an engineering degree from Montana State University. Contact Eric at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., 406-465-3386 ext. 2, and follow him on Twitter.