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Recapping Missoula's biggest stories of 2016

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The election

Oy, can we get a do-over? The 2016 election season came stomping into Montana like an angry toddler just off the playground. So much yelling, so much mud. A lot of that, of course, was courtesy of Donald Trump, who knocked aside his fellow Republican presidential contenders one by one and two by two as the months ticked past. By the time he touched down in Billings on May 26, Trump had gone from upstart to frontrunner, and the thousands gathered to see him at the Metrapark that day revealed that the fanaticism driving his campaign hadn't skipped the Treasure State. Bernie Sanders, too, managed to energize a swath of Montana, drawing more than 9,000 supporters to a scorching May 11 appearance in Caras Park and besting Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary a month later.

Things weren't much better down-ticket. Conservatives relentlessly hammered Gov. Steve Bullock over his use of the state plane. Democrats shot back with attacks claiming Republican challenger Greg Gianforte had restricted public access to the East Gallatin River through his Bozeman property. The state Supreme Court race between Kristin Juras and Dirk Sandefur was equally savage, as was the battle over a ballot initiative to ban trapping on public lands. U.S. Congressman Ryan Zinke and his Democratic opponent, Denise Juneau, ran a comparatively civil campaign save for a few shots over public lands issues.

When the fireworks were over, Bullock won. So did Sandefur. The trapping ban failed. And in an odd symmetry, Trump and Zinke each won in Montana with 56 percent of the vote. Not that it would matter much for Zinke—Trump nominated him as Secretary of Interior in December, ensuring that already exhausted Montanans will have to return to the polls this spring for another round.

—Alex Sakariassen




The Merc

In late February, rumors began to swirl of a plot to destroy the Missoula Mercantile building. At a Historic Preservation Committee meeting in early March, those rumors were confirmed when Bozeman developer HomeBase presented a plan to demolish the 140-year-old structure and replace it with a gleaming five-story Marriott hotel and retail space. Months of public meetings and lengthy debates ensued before Missoula City Council ultimately approved the demolition permit, but not before requesting changes to HomeBase's design to make the new building more cohesive with its downtown environs. The issue isn't quite yet settled, though. "Save the Merc" supporters continue to fight the city in court over the council's decision. As the year ends, their lawsuit challenging the proceeding awaits a ruling from District Court Judge Dusty Deschamps.

—Kate Whittle




Mountain Water

It's been an exciting year for tapwater. In January, The Carlyle Group announced that it had sold Mountain Water and its parent company to Liberty Utilities—despite the ongoing eminent domain case over whether Missoula should be the utility's rightful owner. The acquisition by Liberty came as a shock to city leaders and the state Public Service Commission, which is supposed to regulate such transactions. In the midst of the confusion, the Montana Supreme Court heard arguments in April regarding Carlyle's appeal in the eminent domain case. The judges seemed sharply critical of the city's tactics, but nonetheless announced a 5-2 decision in August siding with the city. City leaders celebrated briefly before moving on to the next step: a court proceeding to initiate the purchase. Also remaining up in the air? Exactly how much Mountain Water will cost Missoula. A valuation panel determined the utility to be worth $88.6 million, but that doesn't take into account Mountain Water's debts to local developers who extended the system. Those developers are suing to make sure they get paid about $22 million—the next hearing in that case comes up in January. And Missoula's legal expenses already top $6.5 million, despite initial estimates back in 2014 that the whole legal shebang would cost $400,000, tops.

—Kate Whittle




Medical marijuana

Medical marijuana got the full yo-yo treatment in 2016, starting with a Montana Supreme Court decision in February that upheld a 2011 law limiting providers to just three patients. Though the court delayed implementation of the rule until Aug. 31, advocates feared that a statewide shutdown of dispensaries was imminent. The U.S. Supreme Court's refusal in June to hear an appeal, and District Court Judge James Reynolds' reluctance to issue another stay, only deepened the industry's resolve to pass Ballot Initiative 182 and overturn the patient limit. By September, more than 11,000 patients in Montana no longer had access.

Can you hear them now? The voters spoke in 2016—again—in favor of medical marijuana access. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Can you hear them now? The voters spoke in 2016—again—in favor of medical marijuana access.

Meanwhile, medical marijuana opponent Steve Zabawa and his nonprofit SAFE Montana were busy attempting to pass an initiative of their own, one that sought to ban marijuana completely. Zabawa amassed a $206,944 war chest, investing much of it in advertisements and billboards opposing I-182. His effort was for naught and the initiative failed to make the ballot. I-182 succeeded, passing on Election Day with 58 percent of the vote. But even victory came with a twist: A clerical error in the initiative's language threatened to delay its effects until summer 2017. In the end, Reynolds came to the rescue once more, ruling in early December to correct the error and implement I-182 immediately.

—Alex Sakariassen




Grizzly delisting

After months of public speculation, and to no one's surprise, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially rolled out a proposal March 3 to delist grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The announcement sparked an immediate backlash from environmental groups and tribal activists, with a Missoula-based spokesman for WildEarth Guardians calling the move "incredibly premature and extremely damaging." In April, state wildlife officials confirmed that the famed Yellowstone griz known as Scarface had been shot dead the previous fall, stoking fears that high-profile bears would likely be the first killed by hunters in a post-delisting world. The FWS reopened the proposal for comment in September, but that did little to slow the momentum. By mid-December, an interagency committee had approved a draft conservation strategy for the species. The FWS reportedly expects to release a final rule in early 2017—once it finishes reviewing an estimated 650,000 comments.

—Alex Sakariassen

Grizzly delisting won’t be final until 2017, but 2016 was the year the deed was done. - PHOTO COURTESY OF ADAM WILLOUGHBY
  • photo courtesy of Adam Willoughby
  • Grizzly delisting won’t be final until 2017, but 2016 was the year the deed was done.



Montanans at Malheur

Crazy ran wild in Oregon in January as more than two dozen armed militants left their tinfoil hats at home and took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, demanding, among other things, the release of federal lands to local control. The occupation was headed by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of infamous Nevada scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy, and two Montana names showed up prominently in the roll call: Plains native Jake Ryan and Anaconda militia member Ryan Payne. When, after a month and a half of standing around playing soldier, the occupiers were finally rousted, Payne was among those arrested. Ryan temporarily evaded law enforcement, but was eventually found hiding in a stranger's shed in Oregon. A federal judge released him pending trial. Payne remains in custody, having pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the Malheur occupation. He also faces trial early next year in Nevada over his involvement in a 2014 standoff on Cliven Bundy's ranch.

—Alex Sakariassen

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The original print version of this article was headlined "What happened?"

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