Mussels be dammed

Past Issues

Mussels be dammed

Quagga and zebra mussels could cost tribes millions

Story by Heather Fraley | Senior Editor

Illustration by Mollie Lemm | Web Editor

THE RUMBLE of the turbines inside the inner workings of Séliš Ksanka Ql’ispé (SKQ) Dam is so loud, it’s hard to hear anyone speak. Brian Lipscomb raises his voice above the clamor to explain how the dam’s turbines are cleaned and maintained.

Acquiring the SKQ Dam, formerly Kerr Dam, in 2015 was an important step forward for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). With the acquisition, it became the first tribal government in the U.S. to own a major hydroelectric facility. However, the CSKT still faces challenges.

The most recent threats to this facility are aquatic invasive zebra and quagga mussels. The seemingly inevitable westward march of these invaders is a source of financial concern for Energy Keepers, the tribally-owned company that operates the dam, which is located on the Flathead River. The mussels could cost the company $8 million a year, according to Brian Lipscomb, CEO of Energy Keepers and a CSKT member. Any financial loss incurred could significantly impact tribal social support programs that many members rely on.

Although no invasive mussels have been found in the Columbia River Basin, which includes the Flathead River, they have been detected as close as the Tiber Reservoir in north-central Montana. Once the mussels get into a body of water, they multiply rapidly and coat any submerged structures, such as hydroelectric turbines. Montana conservation groups and agencies spent about $9 million in prevention in 2017.

In fiscal year 2017, the dam earned $27 million in total funds for the tribal government. After operating costs are subtracted, the dam generates about $18 million a year in profit. According to Lipscomb, the dam is one of six for-profit CSKT companies. The money goes directly to the tribes.

“We have zero retained earnings,” Lipscomb said. “The tribes use those dollars to provide services to the tribal membership, and that, of course, benefits the entire community as well.”

Energy Keepers follows a specific for-profit business plan: it sells its energy on the open market. If Energy Keepers makes less energy, it makes less money. It doesn’t have customers who could share the higher operation costs mussels would bring. If the turbines are stopped, no energy is generated, and the dam loses money.

If mussels make it to the Flathead River, dam operators plan to shut down the turbines and physically remove the mussels. Lipscomb estimates $8 million a year would be lost, based on how long the turbines would be stopped.

“So that $8 million, if we suffered that as an impact, that would be a direct impact to the revenue that we provide back to the tribes,” Lipscomb said.

According to Lipscomb, some of the revenue from the dam goes toward tribal social support programs, including elderly assistance programs. The services include snowplowing to provide better winter access for elderly people and supplying firewood to heat houses. There are also programs that help tribal members who need assistance after a death in the family.

The dam generates an additional $2 million a year for the tribal natural resources department as mitigation for the loss of wildlife habitat caused by the dam.

If invasive mussels get into to the Flathead River, the mitigation funds won’t stop coming in. Mitigation payments are required in the dam’s operating license. However, invasive species impact these funds in a different way.

According to Tom McDonald, manager of the CSKT Division of Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation, the funds are flexible and protect the native fishery in multiple ways. 

The natural resources department has already redirected some of its mitigation funds from other planned projects to invasive mussel prevention.

This reduces the funding to provide fishing opportunities for some tribal members who rely on fish for food. It also reduces the ability to improve the fishery for the native bull trout, a threatened species of high cultural significance to members of the CSKT.

“I have to follow the law”

Past Issues

“I have to follow the law”

Release of convicted murderer shocks victim’s family

Story by Maggie Dresser | Staff Writer

When Kari Covers Up learned from a passerby in Crow Agency, Montana, that her brother’s killer was going to be released early from prison, she felt old wounds reopening. Not only was Quinton Birdinground Jr., 38, supposed to serve nine more years for murder and assault, authorities were supposed to notify Covers Up, a Crow tribal member and former tribal judge, and her family of his whereabouts when he was released.

So she and her 72-year-old aunt, Myra Lefthand, were shocked when they heard rumors on the reservation of his impending release. “Nobody knows what’s going on,” Lefthand said. “That’s the same thing we’ve experienced. Somebody need[ed] to come tell us what’s going on.”

The lack of communication frustrated Lefthand, who feels her family is being ignored. “They do it for white victims,” Lefthand said. “We’re almost like second-class citizens.”

Fifteen years ago, at a house party, Birdinground shot his uncle (who was also Kari Covers Up’s brother), Emerson Pickett, as well as Birdinground’s estranged girlfriend. He killed Pickett and grazed his ex-girlfriend’s hand.

In 2003, a jury convicted Birdinground of three counts—second-degree murder, assault resulting in serious bodily injury, and using a firearm during a violent crime—and a federal judge sentenced him to 24 years in prison. But on Aug. 23, 2018, U.S. District Judge Susan Watters re-examined his sentence in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the violent crime law was unconstitutional. This meant she had to throw out his conviction on the violent crime count, which carried a 10-year sentence. This meant Birdinground had already served his sentence for the other two counts, and had to be released.

Before Birdinground was released, Covers Up and Lefthand were working with Rhonda Myron, a victim witness coordinator for the Assistant U.S. Attorney’s Office in Billings. Lefthand said Myron was supposed to notify the family about Birdinground’s upcoming court dates and prison release, but they received no notification (Myron didn’t respond to emails sent to her work account).

According to the Associated Press, Judge Watters expressed unease at releasing Birdinground, but said she had no choice. “How in the world could second-degree murder not be a crime of violence?” Watters told Pickett’s family during the August 2018 hearing. “I get that. I have to follow the law.”

The Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act, which had been enacted as part of an effort to impose tougher sentences on defendants with three prior convictions for a violent felony, was unconstitutionally vague and “so standardless it invites arbitrary enforcement.” The Court held that increasing sentences under ACCA’s residual clause violated due process.

Birdinground’s prosecutor, Lori Suek, began an appeal after his release, and said she thinks they may be able to reinstate the original sentence. But it could take years to complete. Meanwhile, Birdinground remains free in Billings and Pickett’s family wants justice. “For someone to take my brother’s life and just be able to walk out, that hurts,” Covers Up said.

Enforcing the law

Past Issues

Enforcing the law

Opinion | Montana’s legislature must restore funding so FWP can protect our natural resources

By Jenny Gessaman | Staff Writer

MONTANA’S landscape is inseparable from its identity. Mountain ranges young and old texture the state’s prairie, while rivers and creeks wind their way into three different watersheds.

This is our amazing Big Sky State. This is our almost 147,000 square miles of outside, and it’s suffering because the state can’t protect it. The law enforcement division of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) is legally barred from doing most of its job.

FWP enforcement officers, better known as game wardens, administer Montana’s wildlife management laws. They “make sure people aren’t breaking the law when they are out there hunting, fishing and trapping,” Chief of Law Enforcement Dave Loewen said.

Right now, the terms of the wardens’ funding require them to do something other than that for 14 hours of their workweek. Unless, of course, they’re willing to break federal law to do their jobs.

It’s a dramatic statement, to be sure, but dramatic fits. Not only is the problem real, it originated with the equally dramatic state budget negotiations of 2017.

That whole partisan kerfuffle surrounded a budget shortfall and ended with significant budget cuts. Some fell below the public’s radar, and those cuts became insidious: hidden in the state’s core infrastructure, they internally nibbled away at our government.

Enter the FWP and its law enforcement division. The legislature’s budget changed how Montana funded the division’s salaries. To save money, the state increased the amount of federal funding used in those wages. A good chunk of that funding was Wildlife Restoration Program grants, informally known as PR funding, for the Pittman-Robertson Act that created it, and it comes with tight strings: the funds cannot be used for law enforcement. The money is meant to fund wildlife management “exclusive of law enforcement and

public relations” (16 USC § 669g, if you’re interested).

So how big was that increase in PR funding for law enforcement salaries? One thousand percent. That means almost a third of each officer’s salary bans them from doing law enforcement.

It’s problematic, according to Loewen. The division now has a list of PR activities:  wildlife management tasks staff can do instead of law enforcement.

This means Loewen’s staff focuses on conservation management instead of conservation enforcement, and the change is impacting resources Montanans love.

Fish are one example. The summer of 2017 was hot and dry and full of fire. The conditions prompted fishing restrictions across Montana, but those limitations weren’t effective.

“We were unable to have an enforcement presence at those fishing restrictions,” Loewen said. “We were unable to do basic compliance checks.”

The lack of enforcement is a tricky change, and it’s hitting the state on several levels. Resident reports are now a major factor in FWP’s attempts to stop misbehavior. Loewen’s division lost an investigator to early retirement, a decision prompted by the funding change.

And, worst of all, one mistake could cost a state department’s budget. The entirety of FWP’s annual PR award, roughly $30 million, could be at risk if Loewen’s division makes one wrong move, like working too many enforcement hours. This budget cut is altering more than a budget; it’s altering an essential division of our government.

But the wardens are studiously logging their hours and activities. FWP is noting the side effects. Maybe during the next budget negotiations, the wardens will incite some change. Maybe they won’t have to choose between their job descriptions and federal law. Maybe, as FWP’s law enforcement, game wardens will be able to go back to enforcing the law.

Foster care by the numbers

Past Issues

Foster care by the numbers


50%Caucasian36%American Indian/Alaskan Native7%More than one ethnicity/undertermined6%Hispanic1%Black

In January 2018, Montana’s Department of Public Heath and Human Services launched the First Years Initiative to reduce child abuse and neglect in Montana. Although Montana’s foster care population only increased 1.4 percent in the first half of 2018, Montana still boasts one of the worst foster care records in the country. “Montana is still the child removal capital of America, tearing apart proportionately more families than any other state,” posted Richard Wexler, former journalist and executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, in response to a 2018 report from Montana DPHHS.

Montana is the third least populous state, but it has the third most children in foster care. Idaho is the seventh least populous state and has the fewest children in foster care.

Between 2008 and 2018, Montana’s population of children under 18 increased less than 3 percent, but Montana’s foster care population increased 250 percent.

Native Americans are 7 percent of  the Montana population, but account for 36 percent of children in foster care.

At least two-thirds of the state’s foster care cases are related to drugs, and most are from methamphetamine.

The number of children in foster care because of parental substance use disorder has doubled since 2010.

Montana’s rate-of-removal per thousand impoverished children, which the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform says is a more accurate measure of a state’s propensity to remove children, was 68.11 in 2017, the highest in the U.S.

From 2010 to 2017, methamphetamine use has increased 415 percent in controlled substance cases.

Approximately 7,200 Montana grandparents had primary responsibility for their grandchildren in 2016.

Heroin has increased 1,234 percent in controlled substance cases from  2010 to 2017.

The number of children living apart from their families in out-of-home care increased by 19.9 percent from 2015 to 2016.

Of the 3,366 children in out-of-home care in 2016, 633, or 18.81 percent, were waiting to be adopted.

There were 260 children legally adopted through a public child welfare agency in Montana in 2016, a decrease of 16.1 percent from 2015.

In Montana, nearly 60 percent of foster homes are placements with relatives.

Locked out

Past Issues

Locked out: Key moments in Montana’s labor past

A timeline of Montana’s labor disputes


IMERYS TALC AMERICA INC. locked its doors to 35 International Brotherhood of Boilermakers union employees in Three Forks, Montana, on August 2, 2018. Randy Tocci, the talc mill’s lead warehouse worker, stood next to the mill’s entrance gate on that hot summer evening. He watched his fellow union workers be escorted off the property in the middle of the afternoon shift. A picket line formed immediately.

Imerys Talc America Inc. and the union workers began negotiating a new contract in May 2018. The company issued a series of final offers to the workers. These terms were rejected four times, leading to one of the most prominent labor disputes in Montana in the last three decades.

The picketing workers stood outside the gates fighting for fair contract terms. Their protest was met with widespread support from the community and local government officials. Government pressure does little more than encourage negotiations with the company and its workers. But Tocci saw the support as a morale booster on the line, and as a way to reach national news outlets.

The locked-out workers sacrificed some of their original terms in search for a compromise so they could return to work. Imerys Talc America Inc. wasn’t as willing to bargain.

“We offered up some supposals and moved from our position to try and get the company to move at all, and really, they showed no movement,” Gary Powers said. Powers was the union representative leading the negotiations.

Tocci has worked at the talc mill for 38 years. He’s seen several changes in ownership during his time and was part of a strike in the 1980s that led to an agreement in only three weeks.

Imerys swept into Montana talc operations in 2011, buying another mill in Sappington, Montana. They also purchased the nation’s biggest talc mine, the Yellowstone Mine, near Ennis, Montana.

The company says its desire to make changes is based on the uncertain future of the talc industry. However, the union found that the company’s books show little to no evidence of future financial problems.

The strike ended after three months, with the company and the union workers reaching an agreement for three-year contracts. The new contracts give the workers some of their terms, with a seniority system, overtime and health insurance coverage after retirement. Union workers returned to work November 5.

Bluebird Incident

June 18, 1887

Bluebird Mine workers were the last holdouts to join a union in Butte, Montana. Butte was the origin of much of Montana’s early labor movement. It was known as the “Gibraltar of Unionism.” On June 13, the Bluebird workers shut down mining operations and marched to the union hall to be initiated into the Butte Miners’ Union. This created a “closed shop” in Butte’s mines that lasted 27 years.

The IWW Timber Strike in the Kootenai Valley

April 12, 1917

Industrial Workers of the World, also known as “Wobblies,” organized loggers who were fed up with low wages and poor living conditions. The strike started in northwest Montana’s Kootenai Valley, six days after the U.S. officially entered World War I. The strike eventually spread to include Washington, Idaho and Oregon. At the height of the dissent, approximately 50,000 men refused to work and almost half of them stood in picket lines. The federal government sent troops to run the timber mills and arrest Industrial Workers of the World leaders. The arrests effectively ended unionization in the West’s timber industry for more than 10 years.

“Bloody Wednesday”

April 21, 1920

At around 4 p.m., hundreds of picketers staged a strike on Anaconda Road in Butte, Montana. They were protesting the poor working conditions in the Neversweat Mine. This protest followed several days of unrest. The Industrial Workers of the World led the strike. Law enforcement persuaded picketers to start leaving, but they later returned. Shots were fired into the crowd, injuring 16 and killing at least one person.

Copper Mining and Refining Strike

July 1, 1977

Montana copper mining and refining workers joined workers from eight other states and more than 10 different unions in a strike lasting 68 days. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a total of 23,000 workers joined the strike nationally. It ended when workers entered into a three-year agreement giving them incremental wage increases of 85 cents per year. The agreements also guaranteed increased pension, life, medical and accidental death insurance.

Mining Strike in Three Forks

August 2, 2018

Imerys Talc America Inc. locked out 35 International Brotherhood of Boilermakers union workers at a talc mill in Three Forks, Montana. The workers wanted a seniority system that requires pay and personnel decisions to be made based on how long the employee has been with the company. A compromise was reached after three months. Union workers returned to work November 5.