The Billings Gazette featured news on a home explosion, a bison transfer, census preparations, a pilot program to reunite families and much more over the long holiday week.
Read our some of our best stories here.
2 injured in South Side apartment explosion, cause unknown
Rescue crews responded to the scene of an explosion at a South Side apartment complex at 3100 3rd Ave. S. around 9:45 p.m. Friday night.
According to BPD Lt. Brian Krivitz, two people were injured and taken to the hospital with burn injuries of unknown severity. The cause of the explosion is unknown.
The apartment building, also known as the Battleship Apartments, was cleared after the incident, and authorities were waiting for a Montana-Dakota Utilities employee to turn off the gas.
The whole block of Third Avenue South remained blocked off Friday night, and the apartment building will remain evacuated as authorities are unsure of the structure's stability.
The American Red Cross has been called to help with displaced residents, Krivitz said. The Billings Fire Marshal will investigate the incident.
Devin Barth was standing outside his brother’s apartment, located in the complex, when the explosion happened.
“I saw the glass from the door shoot into the road and I felt the blast,” Barth said.
Relatives live close by, he said, so his brother will have a place to stay while authorities continue investigating.
Apartment residents Holly and Mario McKeen also heard the blast as well and said it sounded like a tree hitting the roof.
Billings firefighters, police and AMR responded to the scene.
Artist who designed 'Star Wars' characters Darth Vader, C-3PO lived 10 years in Billings
As a small boy Ralph McQuarrie would watch the airplanes come and go from the Billings airport. Watching Billings' skies, he became fascinated with aviation — a fascination that turned into a career drawing spacecraft and alien worlds.
Almost 30 years later, McQuarrie was famous as a science fiction and fantasy artist who created the look of the "Star Wars" universe.
George Lucas, creator of the "Star Wars" franchise, hired McQuarrie early in the process to create conceptual art to match his script in an attempt to persuade film executives to sign off on the ambitious project.
Several studios had already been written off the idea of an intergalactic rebellion. McQuarrie’s initial artwork not only persuaded reluctant studio executives to take a chance on the large-scale trilogy, but also set the look for the entire "Star Wars" franchise.
“Ralph’s contribution to the 'Star Wars' world is incalculable," Lucas said, in the documentary “Ralph McQuarrie: Tribute to a Master.” "Him bringing the characters that I described with words to life and visuals, to be able to see what they look like, was a very key component in being able to put the whole story together."
He designed beloved characters like the droids C-3PO and R2-D2, and gave Darth Vader his iconic breathing mask and helmet. He designed the planet Tatooine and the Cloud City, along with countless other planets, spaceships and characters.
How McQuarrie got into the "Star Wars" work was perhaps a work of fate — or, more aptly, the force.
McQuarrie was born in Gary, Indiana, in 1929. That same year his family, including his younger sister, Joan, and his parents, Ralph Sr. and Madeline, moved to Billings, where they lived for 10 years, said Western Heritage Center community historian Lauren Hunley, citing census records.
As a child, McQuarrie was already showing artistic interest. He wanted to attend the Billings Polytechnic Institute. He was interested in combining flight and art, longtime friend John Scoleri said. Scoleri also co-authored two books on his art: "The Art of Ralph McQuarrie," and "ARCHIVES: The Art of Ralph McQuarrie."
“He talked about Billings. He definitely had memories of growing up and watching the airplanes,” Scoleri said. “That was a huge influence; it combined his interests. He’d draw and build model airplanes.”
McQuarrie never did attend the Billings school, which would become Rocky Mountain College. His parents moved from Billings in 1940, and from there McQuarrie wasn’t in one place for too long. Eventually he graduated high school in Seattle, served in the Korean War and later attended an art school in California.
His childhood fascination with aviation later translated to a career in technical drawings for Boeing.
But the artist quickly got bored with the harshly technical drawing.
“He described it as drawing windows on airplanes, and that just lost his interest,” Scoleri said.
After deciding to leave Boeing, McQuarrie began painting movie posters, and working as a conceptual artist after a former Boeing co-worker-turned-filmmaker commissioned him to draw some sci-fi art for his upcoming movie.
Those connections led to an introduction between Lucas and McQuarrie, Scoleri said.
“In the beginning you hire somebody because of their work," Lucas said in the documentary. "I saw his work. It was fantastic and really beautiful. And I met him. He was a very sweet guy, easy to get along with, and with the combination of those things I said, ‘Let’s go.'"
McQuarrie could never say why inspiration and other-worldly images would strike him when reading Lucas' words. But he pulled from earth's landscapes, collecting National Geographic magazines and organizing them by type of ecosystem, Scoleri said. He had a knack of making alien worlds look strange, but oddly familiar and inviting. His dynamic paintings were dramatic, and completely revolutionary in the 1970s.
"His paintings weren't just schematics," Scoleri said. "He captured a story in each painting, and that is why people have responded to his artwork."
But McQuarrie was quick to credit other artists for their contributions to "Star Wars."
"He knew he was working as part of a team and he wasn't single-handedly doing everything," Scoleri said.
He also made a brief cameo on the third movie "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back" as a general on the rebel base on the planet Hoth. Later, an action figure on General Pharl McQuarrie was released — a character with the same last name, and an anagram of McQuarrie's first name.
McQuarrie created art for all three original movies under Lucas, which threw him into the world of sci-fi fantasy art. But he didn't stop with "Star Wars."
Under Lucas he drew some work for the Indiana Jones movies. He created art for Steven Spielberg movies “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” He painted art for "Star Trek" productions, and McQuarrie won an Academy Award his work in the 1985 fantasy “Cocoon.”
He painted many movie posters and book covers, including the cover for the novelization of "Star Wars" that was released prior to the first installment of the films, Scoleri said. He also animated for scenes of the Apollo Moon landing for some news organizations.
Despite his long list of accolades, McQuarrie has been primarily remembered as the visual creator of "Star Wars."
Some of his original work was tweaked for the film, or as various scripts were changed. Chewbacca was originally drawn to look more like a monkey or lemur, and Luke Skywalker first appeared in the script as a woman.
But Lucas tried to keep the actual movie visuals as close to McQuarrie’s original concepts as possible, Scoleri said.
That trend has continued through the various directors, nine movies, and multiple TV series — including Disney's newest series, "The Mandalorian." McQuarrie’s influence from the 1970s can be seen in the latest installment, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”
“There’s a shot in the new movie that is based on a painting that Ralph did in 1975,” Scoleri said.
“You could take that frame and compare it to McQuarrie’s piece,” Scoleri said. “It’s very clear that J.J. (Abrams) or someone else said ‘Let’s get this shot in the movie.’ That painting had never been realized on screen.”
Scoleri said those kinds of direct influences are hard for the layman to spot — only dedicated McQuarrie fans might see the similarities in a throne, new alien or armor that hearkens back to one of “thousands” of "Star Wars" pieces McQuarrie drew.
McQuarrie’s name has perhaps faded in public’s perception, especially as newer generations of movies and viewers come out, but his influence will last decades.
“Almost anyone working in that field (of conceptual art) today is one of McQuarrie’s children,” Scoleri said. “Particularly on films or TV shows.”
Photos: Notable, famous and infamous people who have called Billings home
Stanley Anderson — Actor
James Franklin Battin — Congressman
Conrad Burns — U.S. senator for Montana
Martha "Calamity Jane" Cannary
John Dahl — Filmmaker
Arlo Guthrie — Singer, songwriter
Ethel Hays — Artist, cartoonist
Will James — Artist, author
John Jeremiah "Liver-Eating Johnson" Johnston — Mountain man
Jeff Kober — Actor
Kostas — Songwriter
Wally Kurth — Actor, singer
Charles Lindbergh — Aviator
Bud Luckey — Animator
Helen Lynch — Actress
Stan Lynde — Cartoonist
Ralph McQuarrie — Artist
Brent Musburger — Sportscaster
Henry L. Myers — U.S. senator for Montana
J.K. Ralston — Artist
Kevin Red Star — Artist
Denny Rehberg — Congressman
Chan Romero — Musician
David Ryder — Director of U.S. Mint
Tom Stout — Congressman
Burt Talcott — Congressman for California
Carol Thurston — Actress
Scrubbed Billings tourism campaign illustrates larger problem of not including Native voices
A Billings ad campaign that was scrubbed a day after a blogger called it racist illustrates a larger systemic issue of excluding Native voices in marketing campaigns for tribal nations, several spokespeople and tribal members around the state said.
Having too few diverse perspectives or first-voice perspectives on tourism and marketing campaigns can damage communities and perpetuate negative stereotypes, said Heather Sobrepena, program manager for the Office of Indian Country Economic Development. Tribal tourism is a wing under that the office.
“It creates an ‘us and them’ mentality, which is never healthy,” Sobrepena said. “It promotes misconceptions about individual tribal identity and creates generalizations. There are no generic Native Americans.”
Visit Billings has an example of those misconceptions. Before the website was “scrubbed” of offending material Dec. 16, a section speaking about the Northern Cheyenne Reservation featured photos of Crow women during Crow Fair.
“‘Native American’ is a nice, politically correct way to say what we are, but we’re all different: different languages, beliefs and histories. And each one is awesome,” Olivia ‘Rose’ Williamson said. Williamson operates Indian Battle Tours, and is on a grass-roots tourism committee for the Crow Reservation. Tribal tourism officials with both Northern Cheyenne and Crow were not reachable for comment.
Williamson said the campaign felt like a slap in the face and disregarded years of historic oppression and racism, as the original blog points out.
“My initial reaction (to the campaign) was, ‘hey we’re still here,’” said Alaina Buffalo Spirit, a Northern Cheyenne artist. Buffalo Spirit echoed Williamson's sentiment that the campaign inaccurately portrayed natives and made it seem like Native Americans are relics of the past instead of thriving communities with rich cultures.
“What I didn’t like is that it said 'Onward Pioneers.' What is a pioneer?” Buffalo Spirit said, pointing to a history of displacement of Native Americans by white colonizers. “…What happened to Onward Natives? Why couldn’t it say that?”
Buffalo Spirit also said the campaign was "othering," making a divide between non-Natives and Natives. She said it stereotyped Native Americans and called it "dehumanizing."
"We need to be re-humanized in other people’s eyes and perception of us," she said. "We have a deep culture, and we’re still alive, and as a people we’re still here."
Buffalo Spirit also felt like Billings could be doing more to acknowledge the economic stimulus that the Native communities across the state, as far as the Dakotas and Wyoming, bring to Billings.
"We bring thousands and thousands of dollars into Billings," Buffalo Spirit said. "... Where do we go, where do we take our money? We go to Billings to shop."
Visit Billings has had other good work promoting the region, Williamson said. But both she and Buffalo Spirit said that the campaign pointed to a larger problem of persistent misunderstandings from non-Native people and tourism organizations.
“The spotlight might be on Billings, but it’s bigger than that,” Williamson said. “It needs to be said. These types of issues, they need to be addressed.”
"It focuses on every reservation and all that good stuff and all our events. It’s done in a beautiful way,” Williamson said.
The state moved to become more inclusive with Native tourism last year. The Montana Department of Commerce hired a Tribal Tourism Officer, who vets all internal marketing for tourism, Sobrepena said.
That, along with the State Tribal Economic Development Commission, which has representatives from each of the tribal nations, works to book economic opportunities within the tribal nations.
“We understand (tourism) brings positive economic impacts to tribal communities,” Sobrepena said. “But that really needs to be led and include that perspective of that tribal community.”
In 2017, the state conducted a national survey of potential visitors and found that 82% of leisure travelers express interest in exploring sites related to Native American culture, the Missoulian reported.
“There is a high interest in travelers who want to explore authentic experiences related to Native Americans,” Sobrepena said. “We want to be cognizant that not every place should be shared or explored; there are sacred sites, ceremonial events and parameters.”
To that, Williamson encourages people to come, visit and learn.
“I would just have to say that I totally invite people from Billings that want to know about us. We’re here. We’re happy to share what we have,” she said.
The best means of mitigating exclusion in marketing and elsewhere is to make sure diverse perspectives are involved in the process, Sobrepena said.
“Engaging in tribal communities, I cannot stress that enough. If you have an organization that wants to represent people, you need to be in that community and coming back time and time again,” she said.
Visit Billings has promised to consult with or hire people from both Crow and Northern Cheyenne for its next campaign and to be more aware of diversity going forward.
Getting different voices on various organization levels will inherently help address exclusivity, Sobrepena said.
"The goal is to get beyond the point that we have billboards that people have to ignore," she said. "That there isn't an expectation that there will be culturally insensitive or offensive. ... We should not tolerate that kind of tone deafness."
Billings Symphony gets downtown building donation, largest single gift in organization's history
The Billings Symphony Orchestra and Chorale has received its largest single donation: the Sukin Building at 2820 Second Ave. N. in downtown Billings.
The building is being donated by Jack and Adrea Sukin and Robert and Sandra Sukin, formerly of Billings, through their company, Montana Development Co.
Jase Norsworthy, past president of the Billings Symphony's board of directors and a real estate broker with Re/Max of Billings has been helping with the donation. The Sukins determined a donation would yield similar benefits in tax deductions as a sale, Norsworthy said, and during negotiations developed an affinity for the organization.
“They kind of fell in love a little bit with the idea of the symphony being there,” Norsworthy said.
Plans are to renovate the location on the corner of North 29th and Second Avenue North (formerly Goldsmith Gallery Jewelers), which has been vacant for six years. Symphony executives hope renovations will be completed by the end of May. Other building tenants include Sassy Biscuit Co., Brockel’s Chocolates, Mist Salon, and Something Chic.
Those businesses will remain in the building, said Ignacio Barrón Viela, executive director of BSOC. “We want to respect the current tenants, and we don’t want to interfere in their business at all,” he said.
The Sukin Building was constructed in 1924. Its current taxable value is $674,500, according to the Yellowstone County Treasurer’s office. A formal appraisal is pending.
BSOC is the largest symphonic organization in Montana, currently employing five full-time and three part-time staff. The symphony orchestra has 85 musicians on contract, and 50 volunteer members of the chorale. The symphony’s annual operating budget for FY2019 is just over $1 million, and of that, 1.5% went to rent, said Barrón Viela.
“Our mission is to enhance others’ lives through music, and we wanted to make sure that that remains,” said Barrón Viela. “By generating more money, we can accomplish more activities in the arts and the nonprofit world.”
Norsworthy said the ongoing rental income from tenants will be fed into an endowment or operation budget the organization can draw upon.
Kevin Scharfe, director of the Rock 31 Connect Build Grow program, which will occupy the first floor, said they hope to close on the building in January. Currently, the symphony is in negotiations to extend its lease until renovations are completed.
After hearing of Big Sky EDA’s plans in July, a search committee was formed to identify possible locations for the organization. Barrón Viela said the search criteria was to address the main needs of the symphony, including increasing visibility, ticket sales and accessibility for the organization while remaining downtown close to the Alberta Bair Theater where the symphony performs. Other criteria included a larger space to accommodate the growing organization and allow for collaborations with other arts and community organizations and host small musical performances.
“We are growing the team, we are growing the exposure in the community, and we are growing the number of performances each year,” said Barrón Viela.
This new space triples BSOC's current office space to 3,630 square feet.
The search committee looked at more than 30 properties and had considered the Sukin Building to lease or purchase. During talks with the building owners, the donation came as a surprise, Norsworthy said. "It just came out of the blue."
Growth and outreach
Barrón Viela, a classically trained cellist who was born in Zaragoza, Spain, joined BSOC in January. At 32, he brings an infusion of ideas from his studies at the University of Southern California, where he earned a master's degree centered on orchestra management and volunteered with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
In the role of executive director, Barrón Viela has focused on growing partnerships in the community and presenting classical music outside of the traditional concert hall, helping increase the organization's community outreach programs by 11% in 2019.
“We wanted to be able to reach people who have never been in a concert and offer light classical performances,” Barrón Viela said. “This kind of interaction with the audience is helping to create another uncle of the symphony. It’s not only for patrons who donate, but for us it is as important that music arrives to all.”
An artistic committee will meet in January to consider events for the Billings Symphony’s 2020-'21 season, which begins in September and will be announced in March. The symphony, currently carrying out its season at the Lincoln Center, plans to return to Alberta Bair Theater, which is on track to reopen in September after extensive renovations, according to Jan Dietrich, executive director for the ABT.
“When we re-launch, I think there will be a natural influx of new people," said Norsworthy. "If for no other reason, they want to see the changes at the ABT.”
Native activists working to get Montana reservations fully counted in census
On a Tuesday in mid-December, Jade Sooktis is busy flagging down just about every person walking through the doors of the Shoulderblade Complex in Lame Deer.
If she doesn’t know them by name, she often recognizes them. After all, she’s lived most of her life on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
Sooktis is one of the census outreach workers hired by Montana Native Vote to promote participating in the 2020 federal count.
“Hey Dean,” she says, as a man walks out the door. “Can I get you to fill this out for your parents?”
Since May, Sooktis has been working to increase support for the government count, including handing out what her organization calls census pledge cards. The postcard reminders, filled out on the spot by individuals, will be mailed to them in the spring shortly before the census begins.
Sooktis has been visiting Chief Dull Knife College, Northern Cheyenne Head Start, the new Everything Beautiful Thrift Store and anywhere else people gather, to talk about what’s at stake in the upcoming count.
She set up a table with fliers along the town’s main street in the summer, translated some of the census promotional materials into Cheyenne, and she’s been going door-to-door to deliver her pitch individually.
At stake for Sooktis’ community — and every community — is funding. During the past decade, Montana received roughly $2,000 a year in federal dollars for every resident in the state who was counted in the 2010 census. That’s according to the Montana Complete Count Committee. A portion of the more than $2 billion a year the state receives from the federal government goes to support programs in tribal communities, things like Head Start, school lunches and public housing.
If fully counted, Montana residents could gain a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, census projections show.
The 2020 census data will also be used to redraw Montana districts for the state Legislature. That process will begin once the results of the census are available in 2021.
Redistricting raises the stakes for Native people in Montana, according to Ta’jin Perez, program manager for Montana Native Vote. That’s because any undercount “really does open the door” to diluting Native representation in the statehouse, he said.
“It gives away their political voice, their power to advocate what’s important for their communities and their families,” Perez said.
Federal officials have received 775 applications for people to fill census jobs on the seven reservations in Montana. They’re aiming to receive 1,500 total.
“We target high on applicants because lots of people will drop off the job search due to finding current work or moving or just losing interest,” wrote Josh Manning, a spokesman for the U.S. Census Bureau.
Manning said the bureau did not have a set number of employees it aims to hire. Because the census can be taken online or over the phone, that reduces the need for door-to-door follow up, requiring fewer workers, he said. They’ll know more about staffing needs in the spring once people begin responding. Nationally, the bureau expects about two-thirds of the country to complete the census online, Manning said.
Sooktis said the work isn’t always easy, in part due to distrust of the U.S. government. Some people tell her they’ve never filled out the census before, and that "my family is really against it,” Sooktis said.
Her pitch is that it all boils down to funding.
“We equal dollars,” Sooktis said, referring to per capita funding based on census data. “So if we’re not getting counted correctly, that means less dollars for schools, roads, housing, (Indian Health Service).”
But even if Sooktis wins over every person she talks to, she’s still worried about an undercount. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 4.9% of Native Americans or Alaska Natives living on a reservation were not counted in 2010.
And while most people who live on reservations receive mail at a post office box, the census will deliver forms only to home addresses. Because many rural homes on reservations lack street addresses, Sooktis said it’s critical that census officials hire locals who know the area, are trusted by the residents and can deliver census forms in person.
“We know that if you take this dirt road up there, you go about four miles, there’s a house, you know?” Sooktis said. “We know our community.”
While the census can be filled out over the phone or online, many reservation homes lack reliable phone and internet service, the Complete Count Committee notes. Again, hiring enough local census workers is key to a proper count.
“I know that people are going to be hesitant to be involved because it does have something to do with the government,” Sooktis said. “But if we don’t make our voices heard now, we’ll always be left out.”
Billings-area judges aim to get parents court dates, visits sooner in child removal cases
Starting in January, some parents in Yellowstone County who have their children removed will get to see a judge within 72 hours.
While that’s normal for most states, Montana generally gives courts 20 days.
That timeline tends to get a reaction at professional conferences, said child protection supervisor Jenn Weber.
“There’s always this gasp when that comes up,” she said at a November meeting for lawmakers on the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Committee.
Beginning in January, Yellowstone County District Judges Ashley Harada and Jessica Fehr will pilot an expedited hearing aimed at getting parents on board earlier and improving family reunification rates.
The two judges will conduct what they’re calling “emergency protective services hearings” on Mondays and Thursdays. There, parents will meet with a public defender, get their first child visitation scheduled, book an appointment for a chemical dependency evaluation and download a phone app that sends reminders about court dates and visitation.
They’ll also meet with one of the two judges, who will strive to make clear their intent: The No. 1 goal in any child removal case, both judges say, is to safely reunify the family.
“It’s amazing, you see the change in their face when they realize it’s not adversarial,” Fehr said. “It’s not law and order.”
Most child removal cases result from neglect and not abuse. Federal data from 2012 shows that of the 686,000 children who were maltreated that year, 78% were neglected, 18% were physically abused, 9% were sexually abused and 11% were victims of some other type of maltreatment. (Children could be counted under more than one form of maltreatment.)
Harada said that it’s always traumatic for a child to be removed from their parents’ care.
“Even if it’s a dysfunctional environment and a dysfunctional home, it’s all that child knows,” the judge said. “That is oftentimes their safe place, even though it’s not safe in our eyes.”
The longer parents wait to see their children, the easier it is for them to disengage, the judges said. Under the current system, it can take up to 30 days to arrange the first visit.
For 77% of the child abuse and neglect cases in Yellowstone County in 2017, drug abuse — primarily methamphetamine — was a major factor in removal, data from the county attorney’s office shows. For some, the only motivation to sober up is their children.
“And so to take away the motivation for sobriety and say, ‘Well, you can see that child in 30 days,’” Harada said, “What’s their motive to stay sober?”
The pilot program is welcome news to public defender Jim Reintsma, who represents parents.
“A good portion of my clientele doesn’t trust the government, hates CPS, doesn’t want to work with them,” he said.
Reintsma said an expedited initial court hearing could go a long way toward chipping away at that mistrust and keeping parents engaged.
Coordinators for the pilot will collect data from the phone app used by parents and analyze their participation in child visitation and court hearings. They’ll track factors like how long it took for children to be returned home for a trial stay, the duration of each case, and how often children were returned home but later removed again — something the judges hope to see decrease with the pilot program.
If the pilot shows progress toward permanent family reunification, proponents of the program will look at options for expanding it with other judges in the district and around the state.
Reintsma said he’s told lawmakers about the need to get parents into court sooner, but he thinks any change to state law could take time. In the short term, he hopes judges are persuaded to opt in and establish their own emergency protective services hearing after seeing data from the pilot.
“This needs to happen,” Reintsma said. “Legislatively (or) through the court system, we need to get parents in front of judges sooner.”
In addition, an unpaid intern from the Walla Walla University's graduate program in social work will coordinate the pilot and write a manual for the program.
Next-gen wind farm stalls under PSC terms
A cutting-edge wind farm paired with battery storage cannot advance under what developers are calling unworkable terms set by Montana’s Public Service Commission.
Caithness Beaver Creek is asking the state’s utility regulators to reconsider terms for the $500 million project near Rapelje. Terms by which Caithness was to sell renewable energy to the utility NorthWestern Energy were set by the PSC in early December. The PSC put the overall avoided cost of the energy at $6 a megawatt hour effectively killing the project, according Caithness.
The PSC had expressed excitement about the Beaver Creek project when terms were set in early December. Caithness Beaver Creek is the first Montana renewable energy development with battery storage, making it possible for the wind farm to deliver energy when the wind isn’t blowing, a big step toward making renewable energy more useful and valuable.
When terms for the project were set, Commissioner Roger Koopman, whose district includes the location for Caithness Beaver Creek, called PSC’s work on the project’s terms “the single most important, cutting-edge (renewable energy) decision the commission has yet made.”
However, Caithness said a closer look at the commission’s work revealed seven errors, starting with not taking the project’s battery storage into account. Commissioners also used a new methodology to determine project costs. In filings before Christmas, the developer said the PSC prematurely celebrated the terms for the renewable energy project.
“As a general note, despite the recent publicity that the Commission is excited about the development of the CBC Projects, the effect of the final order is far from encouraging,” wrote Michael Uda, Caithness attorney.
Caithness Beaver Creek plans to build four 80-megawatt wind farms near Rapleje, each with battery storage. The PSC, using its new formula for setting rates, had estimated that Caithness would be receiving a net rate of $38.41 a megawatt hour and a 20-year contract. That rate was 22% less than what Caithness had requested but more than what NorthWestern Energy has asked.
At the rate sought by Caithness, the wind-battery project would have cost NorthWestern’s Montana customers at about half what customers pay for electricity from NorthWestern’s share of Colstrip Power Plant. Montana’s Consumer Counsel puts the customer cost of NorthWestern’s Colstrip power at $78 a megawatt hour.
NorthWestern had argued that Caithness’ development be treated more like a wind farm with energy priced low because of availability issues. NorthWestern argued that it needs “firm power,” that is power available at more consistent levels, from sources like dams and coal-fired power plants.
But NorthWestern did indicate batteries should have been considered by the PSC when establishing avoided cost, which NorthWestern advocated for in its own request that the PSC reconsider the terms set. NorthWestern had its own issues regarding how the PSC expected the utility to true up capacity payments.
Caithness and NorthWestern weren’t on the same page with their concerns about PSC terms. Earlier, the utility had asked the Caithness contract be limited to 15 years. Commissioners set the contract at 20 years.
Once the terms are set by the PSC, barring any reconsiderations granted, NorthWestern has to accept the terms and Caithness power. Those rules are grounded in a 42-year-old federal law guaranteeing contracts for alternative energy projects of a limited size. The federal Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act grants guaranteed contracts for facilities of a particular size. Caithness’ projects, each with 60 megawatts of wind energy and 20 megawatts of battery storage, qualify for the federal terms.
Tuesday’s terms apply to just two of Caithness Beaver Creek’s four phases, each of which generate 60 megawatts of wind energy and battery storage of 20 megawatts. They are qualifying facilities for guaranteed contracts under the federal law known as PURPA.
Some therapy services pulled from Lockwood schools amid nonprofit's staffing struggles
Lockwood school is looking for new therapy-based student services provider after the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch pulled out of the school.
The ranch provides the services, known as CSCT, to several schools in Yellowstone County. Leaving Lockwood is the culmination of years of staffing struggles, school and ranch officials said.
Ranch CEO Mike Chavers called it a "difficult decision" in an email.
"The primary factor in the decision was the inability to hire qualified staff, leading to several open CSCT teams across our service area," he wrote.
The CSCT positions require advanced education and training. Teams consist of therapists and behavioral experts who work with students identified by schools for support beyond what classroom teachers are trained for.
Lockwood officials hoped to have a contract in place soon, and have a potential contract with AWARE, which also staffs CSCT teams in Yellowstone County, as an agenda item for a Dec. 19 school board meeting.
Novasio was confident that the school would find services during the Dec. 10 school board meeting when he announced YBGR was pulling out.
But the episode helps illuminate challenges for programs that provide behavioral support for schools.
“For the most part, it really comes down to needing masters-level prepared people and not having enough of them in Montana,” Chavers said in a follow-up phone conversation.
It estimated that Montana's current demand for psychiatrists was only about 80% filled, and that the shortage will get worse. The outlook for addiction counselors is similar. Psychologists and social workers also face current shortages in the state, but those areas are expected to improve.
The report found that some areas like school counselors and mental health had an adequate supply of workers, but experts still frequently raise concerns about staffing in both fields.
The report doesn't necessarily encompass the exact jobs the YBGR staffs for CSCT teams, but it examines the wider industry landscape.
Services offered through CSCT are an integral part of how schools grapple with what they say are increasing behavioral problems.
Schools staff their own counselors and psychologists, and some have programs like the PAX good behavior game designed to address the roots of behavior problems — notably childhood trauma. But local superintendents have been increasingly vocal about the need for trained clinical staff.
Novasio said that Lockwood has seen an increase in several behavioral issues requiring clinical support, and called the issue a top priority for the district.
According to a recent report commissioned by the ranch, more than 400 kids were served by CSCT teams during the past school year.
"Many stakeholders note that CSCT positions pay poorly for work that is emotionally challenging and demanding," the report says.
It goes on to cite an anonymous school administrator: “The biggest weakness of CSCT is the lack of qualified candidates applying for the program. We have been without a therapist for several months. This is a demanding job with entry level pay, so people are not sticking with the program for the long term.”
Those shortages are concentrated in rural areas, the report says.
The "strengths" section illuminates the importance of having qualified staffers on CSCT teams.
"Repeatedly, school administrators underscored the vital importance of hiring well-trained, well-matched staff on CSCT teams as a factor that contributes to a successful program," it says.
It also shows that despite the staffing gripes, most CSCT staffers and school administrators rated programs as "good" or "excellent," although in some cases they could be better integrated into overall behavioral programs.
The report also lays out what successful programs can accomplish; improved attendance, lower drop-out rates, lower suicide risk, and less need for intensive services as students age.
HELENA — A panel seeking ways to fix Montana's highest-in-the-nation suicide rate is recommending mandatory depression screening of all school…
In 1919, all Billings residents wanted for Christmas was a lump of coal
Desperation rose in Billings with each degree the temperature dipped as the holiday season approached in 1919.
The city, like the rest of the country, was struggling as a prolonged coal miner strike cooled the furnaces of commerce and industry and kept home fires burning at barely enough to survive.
From Nov. 1, when the United Mine Workers walked off jobs around the country, until a few days before Christmas, coal shortages kept specially appointed city Fuel Administrator T.P. Clemow rationing delivery of the precious commodity to homes and businesses that largely still depended on coal for warmth.
To add to the misery 100 years ago, winter arrived early and hard. The first big snow fell Sept. 28, and it kept coming through mid-December. Record low temperatures ate away at meager supplies of fuel. The temperature on Dec. 1 dove to 29 below. The next day, it plunged even further, to minus 34, and repeated that on Dec. 8. On Dec. 12, it "warmed" to minus 25.
During a special city council meeting Dec. 4, an emergency ordinance was passed indefinitely closing schools, churches, dance halls, theaters, moving picture shows, bowling alleys, pool halls and penny arcades. Stores and businesses would be allowed to operate only from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., putting a dent in Christmas shopping sales.
“Passage of the ordinance was prompted by the dwindling fuel supply and growing acuteness of the coal situation in Billings,” The Billings Gazette reported. “In effect, it is more drastic than any war-restrictive measures enforced here.”
The ordinance was not popular and lasted only a week. Merchants were soon restored to regular hours and most other restrictions were lifted. But grade school students did not return to school until after the first of the year. The high school, which was heated from the city’s central plant and not a private supply, was reopened. Students were advised to wear heavy coats because the building had been closed so long it would take some time to heat.
Although it didn’t prove necessary in the end, the city arranged to provide shelter for hundreds of families at the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches if the situation worsened.
“Many of the families are experiencing hunger as well as cold, as the coal shortage has thrown some of the men out of work and they are unable to buy groceries,” according to The Gazette.
At least 4,000 Montana miners stopped working just after midnight Nov. 1, including 1,175 from the Roundup, Klein and Carpenter Creek mines in Musselshell County and another 1,280 from the Red Lodge, Bearcreek, Bridger and Fromberg field in Carbon County. Most would not be back until the middle of December.
One hundred years ago, the country ran on coal, from railroad engines to home heating. Railroads confiscated much of the available coal supply before it got to its intended destinations and doled it out irregularly. In the wake of the emergency, most passenger service was suspended as of Dec. 8, a hardship for hundreds of homesteaders hoping to spend Christmas with family they had left behind in the East. Train service wasn’t fully restored until Dec. 18.
Billings consumed an estimated 300 tons of coal a day and reserves had been running low for months because of a shortage of rail cars. The city had a central heating plant that supplied 300 of its largest power consumers as well as many private residences. It kept operating, but at a diminished rate, reducing its temperature from 70 to 50 degrees. Customers and the public were advised to substitute gas, electric or oil heaters where they could.
Everyone in need of coal had to appear in person at the fuel administrator’s office in City Hall to place an order. Applicants had to state how much coal they already had on hand. A patrolman accompanied each delivery to make sure no one exaggerated his or her need.
“In several instances, it was found that the customer had misrepresented the amount of coal in his bin and the supply ordered was delivered elsewhere,” The Gazette noted. The fuel administrator announced just after Thanksgiving that the names of anyone found to be hoarding coal would be published in the newspaper.
That same day, Fuel Administrator Clemow said that his office had 1,000 orders for coal and that many of the orders could not be filled. No coal was being sold to ranchers or anyone else who could use wood for heat. The city fuel administrator also took over the task of distributing cord wood as it became available. Volunteers, including many from the high school, formed wood-cutting parties to ease the shortage.
In desperation, on Dec. 3 Mayor W. Lee Mains called for volunteers to operate the Bearcreek coal mines, and asked the governor for troops to protect them.
“The present situation in Billings is more than an emergency,” The Gazette declared. “It is a crisis.”
By Dec. 8, a train carrying 80 volunteers arrived in Bearcreek accompanied by a detachment of federal troops. It had been a harrowing 22-hour trip through an intense blizzard. Temperatures well below zero plagued their work in the mine, testing the courage and resolve of many volunteers more used to sitting behind a desk. The mining town didn’t welcome them, but the Billings contingent encountered no trouble from the striking union members. Soldiers equipped with machine guns and automatic rifles were stationed in the camp, and pickets were posted to the surrounding hills.
When they heard that many of the volunteers needed warmer clothing and supplies, businesses and townspeople put together funds to send them. The volunteers were to be paid the regular wages of a miner.
It took time for the volunteers to get the coal to Billings and the supply remained critical. The city council passed a resolution on Dec. 10 recommending the city’s teams and wagons be deployed to distribute small quantities of coal in emergency cases. Citizens could stop the drivers on their routes through town. Reports had reached the council of destitute citizens breaking up their furniture for firewood to keep from freezing.
“City officials, in investigating some of these reports, not only found them to be true, but in numerous instances found from one to three members of families ill from exposure while the children were compelled to stay in bed to keep warm,” The Gazette reported.
Although the United Mine Workers had reached agreement on Dec. 10, new supplies of coal did not begin immediately. Miners in Carbon County refused to go back to work until the volunteers and the troops left.
In what the newspaper described on Dec. 13, as the worst blizzard in many years, the volunteers at Bearcreek continued their mission. Whether the carloads of coal they had mined could reach Billings, however, was touch and go as the tracks were buried by blowing snow and ice packed hard by temperatures of at least 18 below.
By then, the last of Billings’ emergency coal supply had been scavenged from school basements.
“Unless we receive the cars now on the way from Bearcreek many homes in Billings will face the night without a lump of fuel in the house,” Clemow warned.
The city was prepared to commandeer every vehicle in town to take hundreds of freezing citizens to shelter in churches. Two rail cars packed with coal arrived in the city just in time to avoid such drastic measures.
The city announced that 17 wagons would begin delivering coal to homes on Dec. 14 and another four teams would supply the city heating plant. Householders were asked to keep watch for the wagon and help unload the coal.
Union miners at Bearcreek and Red Lodge returned to work Dec. 16, but in Billings, officials expected the coal situation to remain critical for a week or longer.
On the 17th, the 80 volunteer miners returned bringing with them 300 tons of coal — enough with careful use — to last until regular shipments from the mines could be resumed. In all, 115 volunteers from Billings had worked in the mines during the strike.
“Unshaven, grimy with coal dust, weary almost to exhaustion, but filled with high enthusiasm, the volunteers disembarked at the union station and were welcomed by a delegation of citizens,” The Gazette reported. “Transportation was provided for the men to their homes.”
To add to the sense of relief, it was announced that mines in Roundup would open on Dec. 18.
On Dec. 20, The Gazette reported that the city Fuel Administration “will virtually go out of existence today.” Shipments of coal would now be returned to the hands of the 12 privately owned coal supply companies in Billings.
Retrospective: Christmas ads from the first century of The Billings Gazette
Tropical Fruit Store — 1885
Yegen Bros. — 1900
Soule's — 1914
Hart-Albin Co. — 1919
Billings Gazette — 1925
Montana Power Company — 1925
Billings Bottlers' Supply Co. — 1930
Hart-Albin Co. — 1941
Hart-Albin Co. — 1944
Chapple's Drug Store — 1948
Stroup Hardware — 1951
Connolly Saddlery Co. — 1954
Modern Home Appliance — 1956
Billings State Bank — 1957
Buttreys — 1960
Albertsons — 1962
Yellowstone Electric Co. — 1965
Penneys — 1966
Shakey's Pizza — 1969
Eastgate Liquors — 1973
First Northwestern Bank — 1977
The Plush Pillow — 1979
Sheraton Hotel — 1984
Santa's Gift Shop at Lamplighter Square — 1986
Christmas lifts moods of Billings residents suffering shortages, cold and Prohibition in 1919
Billings children, shut out of their unheated schools since Dec. 4, were more than ready for the festivities to begin on Christmas Eve 1919.
Coal shortages resulting from a strike at the nation’s mines had kept most area schools shuttered for nearly a month.
Following its usual custom, the Babcock Theater had invited every child in the city to a free afternoon matinee showing of “Scarlet Days,” a D.W. Griffith silent picture, followed by music from the theater orchestra.
The proprietors had erected a Christmas tree in the lobby and promised that “there is a gift for every boy and girl in this city on the big tree and all you have to do is come and get it.”
Not to be outdone, the Strand Theater promised to entertain children under age 10 with a 10:30 a.m. showing of pictures from two of the biggest stars of the day — cowboy Tom Mix and comedian Charlie Chaplin.
“There’ll be candy, peanuts and apples enough for all — distributed by Santa Claus,” the Stand’s management announced.
The Salvation Army hall was decked out for a Christmas night gathering of about 300 children who might otherwise have a meager holiday. Santa gave each child a package of candy and a toy. Boxes containing warm clothing were promised to be distributed within a few days.
Adults were probably in a little less celebratory mood. Although Montana had already gone dry, federal Prohibition laws had just come into effect, and federal revenue agents were busily rounding up bootleggers and illicit stills in Billings.
No general Christmas tree celebration had been planned, probably because of the dire coal shortage that had begun on Nov. 1. But by Christmas week, the situation had eased and churches, stores, passenger trains and businesses were in full Christmas mode.
Stores extended shopping hours right up to 8:30 p.m. Christmas Eve, and The Billings Gazette was rife with full-page advertisements from the many department stores peppering the downtown district.
Out-of-town shoppers who had been unable to travel when the coal strike forced railroads to curtail passenger trains flocked to Billings when service was restored on Dec. 18.
The city’s poor were not neglected. Five truckloads of Christmas baskets wound through the town on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. More than 100 baskets were filled with chicken, roasts, flour, celery and canned goods as well as candy and nuts.
One special basket was delivered to the home of two small girls, daughters of a soldier who had lost a leg in World War I, a conflict that had ended just the year before. After a long rehabilitation in various hospitals he was enrolled in a government vocational program in another state and sending his allowance to his children in Billings, who were living with their grandmother.
The aftermath of the war had not been easy for many returning veterans. The federal government had set up a job service, but closed it down in the fall, leaving the work to local volunteer organizations. Efforts were made to help those disabled by war with vocational training programs.
Many Montana soldiers remained hospitalized in faraway facilities. Mollie Wall, a Montana Red Cross nurse working at the veterans’ hospital at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, found 50 Montana soldiers and sailors all but abandoned at Thanksgiving.
“In the same wards, Illinois and Iowa boys were receiving cigarettes, cigars, fruitcakes and all the good things from home,” The Billings Gazette reported. “But, strange as it may seem, nothing came for her Montana boys.”
Determined not to let the situation repeat itself at Christmas, Wall contacted all the major newspapers in the state and asked them to each contribute $25 toward a merry holiday for the Montana men. Within hours, the newspapers responded.
Back home, despite a shaky economic year across Montana, merchants were reporting a banner Christmas.
Montana 100 years ago was already in the midst of a crippling drought. It had started in the northern and central counties in 1917, but 1919 was a dry year everywhere. During the peak homestead years between 1908 and 1916, Montana experienced exceptionally wet years. That, coupled with the demands of World War I, welcomed the newcomers to a false prosperity. Crops failed across the state in 1919. In Yellowstone County, voters passed a $150,000 ($2.2 million in current terms) drought relief measure, 1,485 to 508, to help dry-land farmers buy seed grain and supplies for the coming year. The county estimated that 1,500 farmers were in need of aid. Farmers who qualified could get up to $500 in relief.
Cattle were being shipped out by the thousands because of lack of forage. The demand for horses slowed when the war ended and because farms and ranches were becoming mechanized. In Billings, the city struggled to keep up with the number of horses apparently turned loose by owners who could no longer feed them. The city sold the horses, but usually couldn’t get enough to pay the $7.50 it cost to feed and advertise each animal.
In other 1919 news, two new hospitals, St. Vincent and Deaconess, were either under construction or awaiting the arrival of materials to begin. The high school was bursting at the seams, and the school board was considering expansion. In Lodge Grass, a movie company operating out of Sheridan, Wyoming, was putting together an all-Crow cast for a new motion picture. Mary Old Coyote was cast as leading lady and Barney Old Coyote the leading man. Alphonse Childs was set to play the protagonist.
And high atop the Rims, businessman Austin North donated 60 acres of land for a new airport, one of the first in the state. A big concrete star and a wind indicator would be constructed to guide pilots on their way.
“It was only a moment ago that an airplane was a rarity,” The Gazette said. “It will be only a moment before airplanes will be as common as automobiles are now, and by means of them mail, passengers and express will be moved at almost unbelievable rapidity.”
Lame Deer thrift store moves into newly constructed building
Mabel Killsnight loves shopping at the Everything Beautiful Thrift Store in Lame Deer, Montana.
When her husband comes home from work, he calls the thrift store to get a hold of her.
“He knows where to find me,” Killsnight said, chuckling.
Killsnight, 73, visits the thrift store several times a week to shop for her family. She and her husband are raising eight grandchildren on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
The thrift store is the closest place to buy clothing, furniture, cooking supplies and more on the reservation, and Killsnight said that it always has something that benefits her family.
Now that the thrift store has moved into a bigger building that’s been under construction for the past four years, there’s more space for donations. Originally located on East Medicine Lodge Drive in Lame Deer, racks, clothing, and other inventory were moved a couple blocks away to the newly constructed 17,000-square-foot building on Montana Avenue.
Mabel was there during the store’s opening day, picking out holiday mugs and green, red and gold tinsel for her grandkids to use to decorate their home for the holidays.
“It really helped my family,” Killsnight said, referring to the thrift store’s previous location. “There was always something, whether it was a kitchen appliance or a blanket or something I knew that we could use. I always picked it up.”
In 2012, the Northern Cheyenne Ministerial Association Inc. opened The Everything Beautiful Thrift Store in a small school building after the school closed. The board decided to look into constructing its own store after realizing the space was too small and cramped.
The new store was completed in mid-November, with a few finishing touches like paving the parking lot and adding fencing still in the works.
But the $1.2 million building wouldn’t have become a reality without donors, said Rev. Willis Busenitz, president of the Northern Cheyenne Ministerial Association Inc.
Construction began in 2016, and occurred in phases, he said. More than $900,000 was donated by various boards and foundations, with donated excavation and cement work by a South Dakota company. Various church groups and individuals helped with interior painting and plumbing.
Leftover income during the four-year period from daily operations was also added into the construction fund. The annual income during a two-year period is about $40,000 — pretty remarkable, since customers can buy a bag of clothes for $5.
Plans to install solar panels next summer are also in the works, which will help with utility costs, Busenitz said.
Many people played a role in making the thrift store a reality, including Busenitz, Rev. Dennis Bauer, and Rev. Dean Smith, who have served the community for decades since the association formed in 1987.
“We really want to be self-sustaining,” he said.
On the store’s opening day, sunlight flooded through the windows of its main level and reflected off the freshly painted white walls. Before the store officially opened at noon, a few people walked in to see if they could start shopping early.
A banner sprawled across the east-facing wall stated the thrift store’s motto — “Reflecting God’s love for all, in Christ Jesus, we seek to serve our people’s needs, protecting each one’s dignity.”
“One of our philosophies of our thrift store is a hand up, not a handout,” Busenitz said.
Many on the reservation can’t afford to drive to Billings to go shopping, Busenitz said.
People who may not be able to afford an item in the store can also volunteer and work to earn it, whether that's by sorting and washing clothing or setting up shelves. Many grandchildren are raised by grandparents as well in Lame Deer, Busenitz said.
“We’re trying to meet that need that they have and not take away the dignity by just giving it all out,” Busenitz said.
Virginia Ridgebear, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, is one of the managers for the thrift store and said her job has helped in her recovery from substance abuse.
People can come into the store and pray with the pastors on the board, but Ridgebear points out that the store isn't a place to proselytize.
She said her position gives her the opportunity to help others who have experienced addiction as well.
“Look at my name tag, I am the manager of the Everything Beautiful Thrift Store,” Ridgebear said, gesturing to white tag on her shirt. “It’s just amazing. I thank God every day for my sobriety and for putting me in a place where I’m able to help my people who I understand.”
She said bigger spaces have helped the daily operations of the thrift store. A basement area is used to store all of the donated clothing and furniture and offices located in the back of the building are rented out to community members. A second-story level can be used for storage and community gatherings.
A large sorting room with commercial sink, kitchen space, and a washer and dryer is the most important room in the building, Ridgebear said.
During a tour through the room, Ridgebear picked up a worn, plastic Wilcoxson’s Ice Cream bucket with the word “Save!” written in permanent marker.
“This is what we used to wash clothing in at the old store,” Ridgebear said. “Now, we have a big, beautiful sink and washer and dryer."
Before the Everything Beautiful Thrift Store existed, Killsnight would have driven to Billings to shop at St. Vincent de Paul or Goodwill, if her family could afford it.
Her home is often full of family members, Killsnight said, and being able to make payments on things like a freezer and being able to buy an air mattress from the store has helped her get along.
That's what the store is all about, Ridgebear said.
“This being a beautiful building the way it is, we’re going to accept everybody that comes in knowing that they can ask without feeling ashamed or feeling like they’re taking too much,” Ridgebear said.
Female Yellowstone bison shipped to tribes
Thirty-three Yellowstone bison that had been held in quarantine — including 14 females with calves — were shipped from their pasture near Gardiner to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation on Monday.
It was an early Christmas present for the tribes.
“I’m really happy,” said Robert Magnan, the tribes’ bison manager. “We’re not only taking females and babies, some of the females are pregnant. It’s a double batch.”
The female bison are the first Yellowstone descendants to leave since a 2014 release of 138 bison that had been quarantined on one of Ted Turner’s Montana ranches for nearly a decade. They are also the first female bison to be released under a new agreement between tribes, state and federal agencies.
Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group that paid for the bison to be hauled, hailed the transfer as a sign of increased cooperation between the organizations, as well as an example of how a nonprofit can help out.
“This pipeline is starting to happen,” said Chamois Andersen, Defenders’ senior representative for bison.
Although only a trickle now, the group is hoping that the movement of animals will prove to officials that the Fort Peck Tribes can be more engaged in the quarantine and testing of bison, Andersen said. Reaching such a goal would chip away at the number of Yellowstone bison sent to slaughter.
In 2019 more than 300 Yellowstone bison were shipped to slaughter after being captured by park workers. The bison are trucked to slaughter facilities in Montana where the bison are killed and butchered. The meat is then shared among cooperating tribes. Yellowstone officials would like to reduce the number of bison killed in this manner but are constrained by the number of animals the park can hold in quarantine.
The park is collaborating with the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, a federal agency, “to optimize available space for quarantined bison,” according to Yellowstone spokeswoman Morgan Warthin. APHIS has been using a Corwin Springs pasture to hold bison for brucellosis testing, including Monday’s cohort. Warthin wouldn’t say whether that pasture would now be available to the park to hold bison in quarantine. Fifty-eight bison remain at the facility, according to an APHIS spokesperson.
Female bison face stricter regulations for release because, if infected with the disease brucellosis, their birthing materials are considered the main means of spreading infection. Consequently, immature female bison must test negative for exposure to brucellosis for two-and-a-half years before they can be shipped to join other herds.
“We know females are the most scrutinized,” Andersen said. “And we couldn’t do it without APHIS. They are the most concerned about state management and what this program will look like.”
Upon arrival at the reservation, the 33 animals trucked on Monday will be quarantined from the tribal commercial herd on the Fort Peck Reservation for another year while being tested again for brucellosis.
The 5- to 8-year-old bison shipped on Monday, which included five bulls, includes the 14 calves that were born in the Corwin Springs pasture used by APHIS. The adults have been quarantined since December 2017 or June 2018. Although the Fort Peck Tribes built its facility to meet quarantine requirements, the state of Montana has denied requests to use the corral for anything other than the last assurance test.
Nevertheless, the tribes have steadily built a cultural herd that now numbers 400 head as well as a separate commercial herd.
“We’re at our carrying capacity right now,” Magnan said of the cultural herd.
In July, after the calving season, the tribes plan to ship a portion of its herd to the InterTribal Buffalo Council for disbursement. This past June the tribes shipped five bison to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming as it builds its buffalo herd.
Yellowstone bison are highly prized by tribes as well as bison ranchers and managers of other conservation herds for their pure genetics, meaning they have never been interbred with cattle.
'It’s the best thing you can do': Billings man volunteers 4,500+ hours at preschool program
Snowpants had flummoxed a young preschool student on a cool December morning.
She grasped the idea that each pant leg held a human leg, but was having trouble putting that into practice. It’s the type of challenge that can lead to a meltdown for some 3-year-olds who are still learning how to follow directions and deal with frustration.
Grandpa Ed came to the rescue.
Ed Frohlich, 71, has been volunteering with Explorer’s Academy Head Start in Billings since 2010, when he started in his granddaughter’s classroom. Officials there reckon he’s put in 4,500 hours — the equivalent of more than six months of 24/7 work.
He’s there from 8 a.m. to noon, barely ever missing a day.
Frohlich isn’t a trained educator. He’s just a guy who doesn’t do well sitting still and likes to help out.
On the playground, he’s the swing pusher (“his official title”). In classrooms, he helps kids navigate daily activities. He’s a whisperer of tangled coat sleeves and stuck boots, a helper for both teachers and students, an extra adult role model in a classroom where students crave them. He’s “Papa,” “Grandpa Ed,” or if a child on a swing is especially impatient, just Ed.
“Having an extra set of hands, an extra set of eyes, that’s huge for us,” said teacher Dana Hultgren. “There’s other classrooms that are very jealous of us that we have Ed.”
Frohlich is particularly proud of his clockwork attendance. He reckons he’s missed fewer than a month of accumulated days during the past eight years.
“If I miss a day, then I hear about it the next day (from the kids),” he said.
Head Start, a federally funded preschool program, targets students from low-income families and works to close long-established school achievement gaps. The program focuses on some academic goals, but also works on behavioral and social goals.
Seemingly random craft activities like slipping alternating red and white beads on to a pipe cleaner to create a mock candy cane are actually rooted in researched standards — improving fine motor skills, recognizing patterns, following instructions. Educators often bemoan too many kindergartners arrive in K-12 schools lacking such skills and unprepared to learn, and decades of research has shown that preschool programs can better prepare students.
Frohlich will work with kids one-on-one or in small groups. He helps them stay on track during their activities, and a small suggestion to try something different with Play-Doh can nudge kids toward creative thinking.
Even helping kids navigate winter clothing before they ramble across a snowy playground helps. One boy was on the verge of tears after spinning several circuits but failing to get his arm through a coat sleeve; for 3-year-olds, learning to regulate emotions and ask for help is a work in progress.
Frohlich credited caring for his grandchildren with helping prepare him for the volunteer gig. But helping out at Head Start doesn’t require specialized experience.
Volunteers do need to pass a background check and take an orientation class.
“If there’s anything that people aren’t sure about or uncomfortable with, we address that,” said Explorers Academy's community relations director Megan Martin.
About 200 college education students volunteer at Head Start each year, and other organizations have group volunteering events. The program has between 10 and 20 regular volunteers who fit Frohlich's mold, if not his accumulated hours.
Some help out with kids, like Frohlich. Other prefer tasks outside the classroom.
Either way, adult role models are good for the preschoolers.
“It tells our children that they’re important," Martin said. "When people in the community come in an participate in our classroom, it tells them that there are adults out there who care about them, and who want them to succeed.”
Frohlich has simple advice for potential volunteers, especially retirees like himself.
“Take up volunteering,” he said. “It’s the best thing you can do.”
Billings artist donates kiln, ceramics to Special K Ranch
Candi Adams and a group of ranchers repeated the mantra ‘paint, dry’ three times on a December afternoon in the vocational warehouse at the Special K Ranch.
Glazing pottery can be tricky, and usually requires three coats to reach the desired level of opacity. Before a new coat is applied, the previous one needs to dry completely.
But Adams was there to teach the group of Special K Ranchers exactly how to properly glaze and handle the ceramics on Monday, Dec. 9. Adams donated the glaze, ceramics and a kiln to the Special K Ranch earlier this year.
Special K Ranch, east of Columbus, is a nonprofit working ranch for adults with developmental disabilities. The ranchers live on the Special K grounds, work the land, raise sheep and work on several vocational programs. Proceeds from the work go back to running the ranch.
Earlier this year Candi Adams decided to close her business Candi’s Art & Party Studio, where she taught pottery-making and hosted birthday parties and classes. The overhead costs of housing several large-scale kilns that rely on electricity to fire ceramics had left Adams with a tough decision. She decided to downsize.
But Adams still had several kilns and wasn't sure where they should go.
In October Adams' daughter, Ariel Freyenhagen, 27, moved into the Special K Ranch’s newly constructed Carla’s House. Freyenhagen has loved pottery since her mother introduced her to it a few years ago.
Freyenhagen had taken charge at the studio, and had several birthday parties there. Many of Freyenhagen's friends are Special K Ranchers.
“She was a rule keeper at my studio,” Adams said. "Ariel has done a couple of birthday parties. We did ceramics. That was one of Ben's favorites."
Ben Lindenbaum has been a rancher at Special K for two years. On Dec. 9, he quickly began glazing a small ornament. He said he enjoys pottery, but that his favorite pastimes are bowling and singing karaoke.
Faced with her daughter missing a therapeutic art outlet, and knowing that Special K offers a wide variety of programs often featuring handmade arts and crafts, it was easy to connect the dots.
“(Special K) helps them all have work,” Adams said. “All people with a disability, anybody really, should have that feeling of work and purpose, and the fact they’re giving them this opportunity is amazing.”
Vocational programs at the Ranch include working the ranch, taking care of sheep and cattle, doing light manufacturing work, crafts and caring for produce and plants in the hydroponic garden and greenhouses, said program director Marvin Schieldt.
“(Ranchers) just need a supportive community that isn’t going to take advantage of them,” Schieldt said. “The vocational programs give them legitimate career occupation, just like you and I have, and they can be really proud of some of the stuff they turn out. And they love to sell it.”
The Christian ranch houses 35 residents, not including staff and house parents. Each house has parents who provide 24-hour supervision for residents.
Adams, who runs Candi’s Artsy Fartsy and primarily does board art, now shares a studio on Billings’ West End with other artists, and still puts on classes and programs.
She hopes that the ceramics could become one of many full-time arts and crafts programs that the ranchers work on.
Adams began showing the residents the ropes in early December, including teaching house parent Jeremiah Moseley how to work the kiln, but it may take some time for pottery to become a full-on program.
Regardless Adams hopes the pottery will be fun and therapeutic for the residents. Art is important, she said.
“No matter the age or ability, everyone can make a work of art,” Adams said.