Taking the Reins

Providing therapeutic horseback riding to Montanans in need

Story and photos by Kennedy Delap

Volunteer Jayne Wilkinson leads Jack, while volunteer Paxton Sanchez holds onto Hazel Guerette's leg for support as she participates in her riding lesson on Wednesday, October 6, 2021. “When she first started she was pretty shy,” says Sam Morton, staff physical therapist, reflecting on Guerette’s progress at Trotting Horse Therapeutic Riding. Guerette gives Morton and the volunteers waves and smiles, and she repeats back words to them, even telling Jack to “Go!” every once in a while.

Hazel Guerette is just 4 years old. She has been coming to Trotting Horse Therapeutic Riding Center once a week since the spring of this year. She skips down the aisle of the barn between the horse stalls, holding her mother’s hand, chanting “Horsies!” as she goes. Guerette is autistic and spends a lot of time in different therapy sessions working on her development. Riding lessons are a way for her to have fun and get out of her shell, escaping the hard work. 

“She lights up when I say she is going to go ride,” Erica Sandiland, her mother, said. 

Guerette loves the horses’ tails, their big noses and their ears. 

“She doesn’t love a lot of things,” her mother said. “The horses help connect her to the world and to her body in a way that she enjoys.”

She puts her arms up as Trotting Horse volunteers Jayne Wilkinson and Paxton Sanchez lift her up by her armpits into a tiny leather saddle perched on a huge, gray horse. The horse’s name is Jack, an old high-competition roping horse who was donated to the stable after his career had ended. He walks around the arena with a gentle trot, and Guerette beams at her mother from his back. 

Guerette is one of more than 50 students from ages 3 to 75 who come to Trotting Horse. 

Near the base of Blue Mountain, rolling pastures surround Trotting Horse, filled with dappled gray horses, palominos with flaxen manes and old red mares nibbling fall grass. 

A large barn is situated in the middle of the ranch where stalls line the aisle leading to an arena entrance. There is a wall filled with dusty children’s helmets, some with little handprints on them. Horses nicker as volunteers carry grain buckets up and down the barn. 

Trotting Horse is a therapeutic riding center founded by Cyndi Meyer in 2015. Meyer bought the ranch 16 years ago, and for the first decade it was a place where people could board their horses. When Meyer retired from special education, however, she wanted to continue her work helping children with disabilities. 

“There are not enough activities for them, in my opinion, where they get to decide how the hour runs,” Meyer said. 

Lessons at Trotting Horse can be spent any way the student wishes — visiting, grooming or riding. The goals of each student vary too. Guerette’s goal is to spend her time doing something fun, but the benefits have gone beyond her expectations. Her physical therapist, Samantha Morton, helps her work on her motor skills and core strength during her lessons. Morton has her throw little Velcro balls at a target, encouraging Hazel to bend and twist in ways that engage her core and body. 

“That mind-body connection. That’s a great bonus of it,” Sandiland said about the physical aspect of her daughter’s riding. 

Each rider has a different goal, some may want to stretch their legs, some seek the comfort of the horses for anxiety and stress relief. 

“[Horses] can sense you,” Nita Kattell, a board member, volunteer and instructor, said. “They can feel your heartbeat, they just have this innate sense of … just kind of what’s happening.”

“[Horses] can sense you,” Nita Kattell, a board member, volunteer and instructor, said. “They can feel your heartbeat, they just have this innate sense of … just kind of what’s happening.”

When a rider is feeling nervous or uncomfortable, the horses react. Not only do these animals mirror their riders’ emotions, but they also understand their jobs and show kindness to the children and adults who climb on their backs. 

Kattell is also a retired teacher, and was a big part of getting Trotting Horse Ranch started, alongside Meyer. Kattell boarded horses at Trotting Horse back in 2015 when therapy was first introduced to the ranch, and she understands firsthand how having a relationship with a horse can help lower anxiety. It’s why she enjoys helping others who come there. 

It’s something bigger than herself, she said. She has seen her students progress until they can ride independently, weaving through cones and effectively communicating with the horses. 

Trotting Horse is a place where people come together, forming connections with one another and the horses that call this place home.

“I feel so happy because I know how much fun it is,” Sandiland said. “I know how amazing it is to have a connection with a thing that is bigger than you, with an animal. Something that just is kind and gets you. The horses have been so sweet with Hazel.”

Locked Out: Inaccessible Public Land

Landlocked Public Land in Montana

More than 3 million acres of public state and federal land in Montana is considered landlocked, which means that the public can’t access those acres without crossing through private property. Unless they own a helicopter or have express permission from a private land owner, it is impossible to legally access this land.  Although Montanan’s can hunt, fish, recreate and explore more than 27 million acres of accessible public land, these three million acres are out of reach.

The amount of landlocked area in the fourth biggest state in the U.S. equals approximately the same acreage as the total acreage of two Delawares.

Interactive map of Montana Public Lands

Please allow up to 30 seconds for map data to load. Zoom in or out using controls in the upper left corner and click on places to find out who owns the land and how many acres the parcel of land is. This map was created using the open source Leaflet software and data from the State of Montana Cadastral database.

Why is so much land landlocked in Montana?

According to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, state and federal landlocked lands developed in different ways. As western territories became states, the federal government gave lands to the state so they could generate revenue for public institutions. The land was given arbitrarily in a grid, creating parcels of state land surrounded by private landowners. A lot of federal land became landlocked when the federal government subsidized railroad construction by granting railroad companies alternating sections of land on either side of the railroad track. Even though a lot of these parcels of land touch at the corners, it isn’t legal to cross over the corner from one piece of public land to another in Montana.

Example of landlocked lands in Northwest Montana

Screenshots taken from, information on landlocked land from

What is Montana doing to open these lands?

According to Jason Kool, the Landowner Sportsmen Relations Manager for FWP, Montana has several initiatives at work to open up some of this public land. The most successful is the Block Management program. This program works with private landowners to allow access on and through their land, usually for hunting. Kool said half a million acres of landlocked state land are opened through this program That’s a third of the landlocked state land.

Another initiative includes a tax incentive program called Unlocking Public Lands. It hasn’t been as successful as hoped so far. Kool said this is in part because it is a new program and it hasn’t been promoted well enough. It also gives less control to the landowner than the Block Management program.

What’s next in unlocking?

One major issues in unlocking public lands is the lack of adequate funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. According to Kevin Farron, the Montana Chapter Coordinator for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, when the LWCF was created in the 60’s it was funded at $900 million. Now, 50 years later, it hovers at about $600 million. Since its inception, the LWCF has opened access to more than 5 million acres of public land and has established new fishing, hunting, and recreating areas. Key organizations who are fighting to unlock public land, such as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, BHA, and onX, are lobbying to achieve permanent funding for the LWCF.

Leased for Livelihood

One family ranch relies on public land for success

Mike Meuli left the ranch twice: once for college and once to spend a year winning over his soon to be wife.

“I’ve lived here in the Proctor valley all of my life other than a brief time away for college and a year to go to Minneapolis and convince my wife to return to Montana with me,” said Meuli, a fourth generation Montanan and second generation rancher.

“Whether it is a private landowner, state of Montana, federal government, whatever, we’re all just neighbors trying to manage our property the best we can and helping others do the same.” – Mike Meuli

Meuli and his wife Nancy have been married 36 years and have three children, John Michael, Matthew, and Mikayla. Ranching has always been a family affair and their livelihood depends on their ability to access and lease summer grazing land for their cows.

Meuli’s state land lease is one of approximately 8,000 agreements for grazing in the state of Montana, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The section of land totals about 640 acres and is landlocked, meaning that it is surrounded by private property and inaccessible to the public except through private land. Meuli has been leasing the land for decades and gets access through a friendly neighbor, whom he leases land from as well. In total, Meuli leases land from 19 different landowners.

The lot he grazes his cattle on during the summer is the only state land he leases. The herd grazes from the summer until the beginning of October, but sometimes they want to come home early. Meuli said that one of the biggest problems in the early fall is cows escaping and wandering around.

Back when most of the surrounding land was ranches, he said this didn’t matter so much. But now, people aren’t usually as happy about having cows show up in their front lawns.  When he finally opens up the gates in early October, most of his cows wander back home on their own accord. The last bunch gets rounded up with four wheelers and horses. Then they are sorted and counted.

Mike Meuli points to his land and the state leased land he leases at his office in Proctor, MT on Oct. 5, 2019.

Mike and Nancy Meuli home schooled their kids and all three worked for the ranch in their spare time. Meuli said that John Michael loved the animals, Mikayla loved to farm, and Matthew loved being a cowboy.

Ranching is a way of life for Meuli, and one he enjoys despite the sacrifices he has had to make.

“If you get to do what you love, it’s not as big of a factor having to put the time in,” he said.

Above: The Meuli’s cows return home from summer grazing lands and wait to be sorted on Oct. 5 and 6, 2019.

Unlocking Montana's Public Lands

More than three million acres of Montana’s public lands are landlocked and inaccessible to the public. For Mike Meuli and Trenton Kris access to public land is important for livelihood and lifestyle. This project examines the role of public land in their lives and it examines the issue and scope of public access through graphics and an interactive map which details public land in Montana. This project was reported and created by Mollie Lemm, a senior studying journalism at University of Montana.

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”

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

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


American Indian/Alaskan Native
More than one ethnicity/undertermined

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: 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.