Natural disasters, a political disaster and more than a couple sides of beef.
That describes the top 10 stories that The Billings Gazette covered throughout 2017. Every year, The Gazette staff picks the top stories it covers — and 2017 saw a lot of interesting and amazing news.
Predictably, Mother Nature played a big role, earning the top story. But unlike other years, politics seemed to play a much larger role in Montana's big stories.
Here are the top stories, as selected by the staff:
Montana on Fire
Flames and smoke dictated life in Montana over the summer of 2017.
It was hard to find an unaffected area in the state as a historic collection of wildfires scorched more than 1 million acres. Firefighting resources descended on Montana at a cost of $400 million, which drew upon federal funds but also drained state resources during a tight budget year.
Severe drought conditions fueled the fires, some of which grew to hundreds of thousands of acres. Communities across the state saw evacuations, destroyed homes and heavy smoke as parts of daily life.
The Lodgepole Complex in Garfield and Petroleum Counties grew to about 270,000 acres, the largest in the country in July.
The Seeley Lake-area was choked by unhealthy levels of smoke coming from the Rice Ridge Fire, which grew to about 130,000 acres and burned into September. A large encampment of firefighters dug in near Lincoln to fight the Alice Creek Fire and other regional blazes.
The Lolo Peak Fire, which threatened homes in western Montana, was the most expensive to fight this year, coming in at $48 million.
The fire season also prompted large donation campaigns for those affected by the fires as well as the people fighting them. People gave money for fire survivors, hay for affected ranchers and places to stay for evacuees.
Prayers for rain were answered in mid-September. But for many, the effects of the 2017 fire season will be felt for years to come.
On the eve of Montana's special election to fill the state's only U.S. House seat, Republican Greg Gianforte assaulted a reporter for the online news outlet The Guardian.
The victim, reporter Ben Jacobs, audio recorded the entire incident, which started with a question about health care and ended with shouting by Gianforte.
While the candidate's staff put out a story accusing Jacobs of being the aggressor, a Fox News crew that witnessed the assault confirmed Gianforte was the attacker.
The next night, Gianforte won the May 23 election, defeating Democrat Rob Quist by 21,306 votes.
What followed the election was a police story seemingly without end. Gianforte apologized to Jacobs, who said he was also promised an interview that never materialized. Gianforte also donated $50,000 to a nonprofit that works worldwide to protect journalists from violence.
A judge sentenced the congressman to anger management and community service in June, which might have been the end of it. But Gianforte fought being fingerprinted and photographed. The assault stayed in the news until October, when the representative's booking photo was made public.
Zinke is named to secretary post
Ryan Zinke became secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior in March, becoming the first Montanan to serve in a presidential Cabinet.
Zinke, who stepped down as Montana's only U.S. representative to take job, quickly became known for putting on a show. He rode horseback to work on his first day, won kudos for hand-scrubbing the Vietnam Memorial more than once, and had Interior staff raise a department flag on the headquarters roof to alert the public that he was "in garrison."
He also became known for political fireworks. Zinke oversaw the downsizing of Utah's Bears Ears National Monument, which went from 1.3 million acres to 228,000. The land amended out remains federally owned, but with fewer protections.
At the same time the Bears Ears decision drew criticism, Zinke recommended a new national monument in the Badger Two Medicine area east of Glacier National Park.
In December, Zinke was dinged for using government helicopters to travel around the greater D.C. area at a cost of $14,000 to taxpayers.
Oil, coal and gas interests have praised the secretary for working to expand production on public lands.
Total eclipse hits the U.S., partial eclipse in Billings
On Monday, Aug. 21, hundreds of Billings residents crowded onto the Rims, the campus of Montana State University Billings and other spots around town to stare at the sun.
In Billings, the partial solar eclipse blocked out 93 percent of our solar system's only star, lasted 1 hour, 48 minutes and and prompted some otherwise normal people to walk outside and stare intently into empty cardboard boxes.
In Wyoming and southern Idaho, hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to the nearby "path of totality," the swath of the Earth's surface within which the sun would be 100 percent blocked from view.
Montana wasn't totally shunned by totality, though. In the southwestern corner of the state, the Italian Peaks Roadless area was briefly the site of a total eclipse. On Italian Peak, the state's southernmost point, the event lasted 47.4 seconds.
Encore: Metra scores big names
It started with country star Dierks Bentley’s show April 22, when 7,382 fans packed into MetraPark.
But even bigger news came in May when it was announced Garth Brooks was playing MetraPark's Rimrock Auto Arena June 9-11. Tickets for the first four shows, 40,000 in all, sold out in 36 minutes on May 5.
A fifth show was added, also selling out, bringing the total to 50,000 ticket buyers. The economic impact from the shows was calculated at $10 million as fans came to Billings from 48 states, four Canadian provinces and three foreign countries.
The acts just kept coming, including Paul Simon on June 20, Nickelback and Daughtry on Aug. 27, and Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo and Melissa Etheridge performing at MontanaFair for 4,040 fans on Aug. 11. MetraPark finished up the year on Dec. 9 with the Grammy Award-winning rock band, the Foo Fighters’ only Montana show, which brought in close to 8,000 fans.
Chronic wasting disease found in Montana
In early November the first case of chronic wasting disease was confirmed in a mule deer buck shot in southern Carbon County, just as the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a draft plan for dealing with the disease. The discovery has launched Montana into a new era of wildlife management that — if any of the other 21 states with confirmed cases have shown — could be a permanent problem.
In December, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks held its first chronic wasting disease hunt — issuing special licenses that sold out in minutes — to determine prevalence for the disease in Carbon County. Chronic wasting disease can also infect deer and moose, but not livestock. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises hunters not to eat meat from an animal that tests positive for CWD.
Big Bear shooting
In the early morning hours of Nov. 4, 30-year-old Frank Joey Half Jr. crashed his 2000 Mercury Mountaineer through the front doors of Big Bear Sports Center and barricaded himself inside.
Nearly 10 hours later, after a tense stand-off that involved 58 law enforcement officers, Half died in a shootout with police. No one else was injured in the incident that extensively damaged the interior of the West End store.
Half, who had recently completed a prison prerelease program in Butte, had been conditionally released to Billings. Earlier that same night, police say Half attempted to steal ammunition from the West End Walmart but was thwarted by employees.
Then, at 3 a.m., he drove his SUV into Big Bear, across the street on King Avenue West. At points during the standoff, Half fired shots at police officers, including a high-powered rifle at the windshield of the bulletproof Ballistic Engineered Armored Response, or BEAR, where a negotiator sat. The bullet didn’t pierce the vehicle.