2020 News in Review

A roundup of the top news stories in Northwest Montana in 2020

By Tristan Scott
Olivia O’Neal deposits her nasal swab in a tube for a COVID-19 test at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell on Oct. 7, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Since the storm tide of pandemic-related headlines gained urgency in the U.S. in March, Montanans have been clobbered by wave upon calamitous wave of news and information surrounding the coronavirus. The picture turned increasingly bleak as the U.S. reached grim milestones, daily cases and death rates rose and the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we work, vote, learn, and socialize.

Amid the deadly pandemic were other national crises that left a mark on 2020, including a presidential impeachment, a presidential election, civil unrest, international tension, the sudden death of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and other disruptive anomalies like murder hornets and toilet paper deficits.

Political divisions widened as state and local governments grappled with measures to try to stanch the spread of the virus, including by introducing new restrictions that clashed with the fierce independent streak some Montanans consider an inviolable sanctity.

Reviewing the year in news is a dizzying endeavor and we can’t possibly convey the breakneck pace of the daily cycles in a single year-end summary, but as we reflect on the momentous year, let us continue to absorb the lessons it has taught, and usher in a new year with hope and optimism.

Flathead County COVID-19 Response

Local disagreements between top Flathead County health officials, the county commissioners and the board of health mirrored the larger political divide over the management of COVID-19, a division that spilled over into statewide and local disputes. On July 15, Gov. Steve Bullock issued a directive mandating that face coverings be worn indoors but leaving enforcement up to local jurisdictions. When Flathead County’s outbreak worsened in October, Bullock specifically urged this county’s leaders to act, prompting a rebuke from the Flathead County commissioners, who sent out a statement that, in part, offered support for residents who choose to ignore the governor’s directives.

By December, the tumultuous waters had begun to calm as the board approved hiring Joe Russell to once again lead the Flathead City-County Health Department, drawing him out of retirement and inking a one-year contract for his services. Russell, who stepped away in 2017 after 20 years as the county’s top public health official but decided to come out of retirement in an effort to bring some stability to what has been a tumultuous year, was the county’s third health officer in 2020, replacing Tamalee St. James Robinson, who took the job on an interim basis July 1 after the resignation of Hillary Hanson.

Elections

On Nov. 3, Montana voters turned out in record numbers and defied their ticket-splitting tendencies, delivering a wave of Republican dominance so staggering that Democrats will be recalibrating the party’s message for years to come.

With the election of Greg Gianforte as governor, Montana’s lone Congressman became the first Republican to occupy the state’s top executive seat in 16 years, handily defeating Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney at the top of the Republican column.

Incumbent U.S. Sen. Steve Daines defeated Democratic challenger Gov. Steve Bullock in a Senate race that broke spending records and garnered national attention. Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale seized the open U.S. House seat by overcoming Democrat Kathleen Williams, a former Bozeman legislator who conceded defeat in her second attempt at becoming the first Democrat to occupy the at-large congressional district since Pat Williams’ nine-term streak ended in 1994, and the first woman to do so in more than a century.

Races for the attorney general, secretary of state, and superintendent of public instruction offices also fell to Republicans, while the GOP picked up seats in both houses of the state Legislature, where it already held firm majorities.

For Republicans, it was a resounding victory, which party leaders are interpreting as a directive from voters heading into the upcoming legislative session in January.

Black Lives Matter

In May, the killing of George Floyd, an African American man, by police officers in Minneapolis spurred nationwide protests over police misconduct and renewed calls for major law enforcement reforms. That movement reached the Flathead Valley by early June, culminating in a Black Lives Matter protest of more than 1,000 people in Kalispell’s Depot Park on June 6.

More than two months later, a 29-year-old black man named Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin, setting off another round of protests around the country and more conversations about the role of law enforcement in American society.

One local woman, Samantha Francine, 28, grew up in Whitefish and was thrust into the national spotlight when she stared down a 51-year-old man who was screaming obscenities at peaceful protesters on a Whitefish street corner. She has since used her viral fame to act as a vocal advocate for people of color.

Glacier National Park

At Glacier National Park, where overcrowding has tested capacity for years, a pandemic summer put the squeeze on infrastructure even as visitation remained below normal levels.

Since entering its “summer like no other” — an apt and oft-used line to characterize the Glacier experience this summer in the age of coronavirus — park administrators likened the business of managing the park’s 1 million acres of public land in 2020 to “building an airplane while flying.” The unprecedented and unforeseen circumstances Glacier and other national parks have been dealt by the COVID-19 outbreak have demanded quick thinking, strong community engagement and a heavy emphasis on education.

“We have been searching for elegant solutions,” Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said. “At times, some might not seem so elegant.”

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council on June 25 voted to keep roads on the park’s eastern boundary, which are on reservation land but allow access to the park, closed for the remainder of the visitor season. That meant the Going-to-the-Sun Road, Two Medicine, and the Many Glacier areas of the park could not be accessed from the east this summer.

On July 13, when the park finally opened to vehicle traffic to Logan Pass on the west side, it marked the first time in the park’s history that the Going-to-the-Sun road was managed as a one-way in, one-way out vehicle access with a turnaround point at Rising Sun. While the opening allowed for 29 additional miles of roadway and nine additional trailheads for visitor access from the previous closure at Avalanche, it constrained a summer’s worth of visitation mostly to a single segment of the park.

Sperry Chalet Reopens

Three years after burning down in the Sprague Fire, Glacier National Park’s century-old Sperry Chalet reopened with muted fanfare in the middle of the pandemic, once again offering backcountry lodging in a park and world that looked very different this summer.

Sperry Chalet was lost on Aug. 31, 2017 after the 17,000-acre Sprague Fire doubled in size in a matter of hours, destroying its fir-and-lodgepole framework and leaving behind only the native-rock shell hewed from a nearby mountain quarry by Italian stone masons more than a century ago.

Former Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke announced an ambitious goal to rebuild the historic wilderness chalet as quickly as possible, and today the rebuilt structure is virtually indistinguishable from the original.

Olney Slayings

On June 30, an unspeakable tragedy shook all corners of the Flathead Valley when law enforcement responded to the scene of a brutal triple homicide involving a Whitefish man who murdered his estranged wife, their 3-year-old daughter and another man following a pattern of domestic abuse.

According to Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino, Kameron Barge, 39, entered a home in Olney in the early morning hours of June 30 and stabbed to death 42-year-old Emily Barge, who went by Emily Mohler and was in the process of changing her name, as well as 3-year-old Piper Barge and 41-year-old Cody Nevins.

Barge and Mohler’s 8-year-old daughter was also in the home at the time of the killings but escaped to a neighbor’s house, where the neighbor called 911. Deputies from the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office arrived at the home around 7 a.m. Barge’s vehicle was discovered about a mile from the crime scene where he was found nearby, dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Outdoor Recreation

Outdoor recreation played an intrinsic role in buoying Montanans through the waves of distress that 2020 delivered in unrelenting succession, with early projections showing that the surging sales of outdoor recreation gear will likely figure prominently into a rare bright spot in the year-end economic picture.

Montana’s outdoor recreation economy contributed $2.5 billion and employed 31,598 people, while making up 4.7% of Montana’s total economy. That places Montana near the top ranking for its size, ranking third behind Hawaii, which linked 5.8% of its GDP to the growing outdoor recreation economy, and Vermont, with 5.2%.

Ranch for Kids

A culture of physical and psychological abuse persisted to such a disturbing degree at a teen treatment center near Rexford so as to warrant permanent revocation of the facility’s license, and the decision by state officials to summarily remove 27 children from its campus was the correct remedy to prevent future trauma.

That’s according to an administrative judge’s order upholding actions taken by the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) in July 2019, when allegations of corporal punishment and rampant abuse at Ranch for Kids prompted the state to intervene just weeks after gaining oversight of the facility and other programs like it, touching off an unprecedented investigation into the program’s depraved history.

DPHHS officials announced the administrative order on Dec. 10 and released new details from their expansive probe, including allegations of sexual and physical abuse as well as assault.

Chronic Wasting Disease

For the first time since Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) was detected among Montana’s wild, free-ranging deer populations in 2017, the fatal neurological illness has arrived in the Flathead Valley, turning up in a captive game farm animal earlier this month.

The confirmation, announced Nov. 20 in a news release from the Montana Department of Livestock, provides further proof of CWD’s growing presence in Montana, where the neurological disease has become widespread in some areas of the state.

However, the recent detection marks the first time CWD has been confirmed in Northwest Montana outside of the Libby area, where it has been gaining prevalence since 2019.

The local detection was made at a game farm in the Flathead Valley, though the Department of Livestock is withholding the precise location and the type of animal that tested positive in order to protect the property owner’s identity.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.