2016: Park County's top ten notable stories of the year

Enterprise Staff

1. Yellowstone River fish kill and closure

A fish kill on the Yellowstone River numbering into the tens of thousands  prompted an unprecedented, total closure by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks of a 200-mile-long stretch of the Yellowstone from Yellowstone National Park to Laurel on August 19. The river was reopened in sections in the following weeks, with the final closure lifted on September 22. 

The agency’s closures banned any and all kind of human interaction with the river, including boating, tubing, fishing and wading, in an effort to curb the spread of the parasite killing the fish. 

Montana FWP biologists determined the introduction of  Tetracalsula bryosalmonae was responsible for the die-off. The organism causes Proliferative Kidney Disease, which primarily afflicted whitefish, killing so many their bodies drifted belly-up in nearly every eddie of the Yellowstone from Emigrant to Livingston, the hardest struck stretch of river.  

The exceptionally high mortality rates, anywhere from 20 to 100 percent, were attributed to the fact that Yellowstone River fish, having never been previously exposed to the parasite, possessed little to no natural immunity to the invader. Near-record low flows contributed to high water temperatures, leaving fish stressed and further unable to resist the proliferation of the parasite, which thrives in warmer waters. The disease was documented previously in only two isolated locations in Montana over the past 20 years.

Livingston and other towns along the river took a significant economic hit. The annual surge of fly-fishing tourists and floaters were forced to move to other rivers, taking their dollars with them.  An analysis by the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research estimated area businesses collectively lost anywhere from $360,000 and $524,000 in potential revenue. Guides, restaurants and bars all felt the pinch.  

Montana FWP biologists noted the parasite only affects certain species of fish, including trout, and said it is possible the Yellowstone could experience another outbreak if the conditions of last summer are repeated, but added it’s unlikely it would be as severe as the first one.   


2. Police related shooting at Shopko 

A jury found two Livingston police officers were justified in the fatal shooting of a resident who charged at an officer while on methamphetamine and wielding a knife during an altercation outside Shopko in January.  

Nearly three months after the death of 37-year-old Sean O’Brien, a jury found that Livingston Police Department officers Kevin Engle and Andrew Emanuel acted in self-defense and were not criminally responsible in the resident’s death. 

On the night of the Jan. 2 shooting, Engle and Emanuel responded to Shopko after an employee reported a man, later identified as O’Brien, was reported to be inside the business making threats with a knife and saying someone was going to die if the police were not called. 

During the March 30 inquest, both Engle and Emanuel testified they did everything possible to avoid using lethal force against O’Brien who was found to have methamphetamine in his system when he was shot 12 times. Engle testified a stun gun was ineffective and felt his life was threatened.

The jury also heard testimony from various witnesses including Shopko employees’ re-accounts, an external investigator’s reports and a toxicologist experts’ analysis of O’Brien’s blood. The jury also viewed video from Shopko’s surveillance system and officers’ dash cam recordings of the incident before issuing their verdict later that day.  


3. Mining moratorium

In November, officials announced a two-year moratorium on new mining claims on more than 30,0000 acres of federal land north of Yellowstone National Park. 

The decision was issued after two mining exploration applications had been filed in recent years in the Gardiner area and on Emigrant Peak above Old Chico. Opponents of the exploration raised concerns about noise, air, and water pollution affecting Yellowstone. 

“Responsible mining is a part of Montana,” Senator Jon Tester said at the Chico announcement. “But there are some places you should not dig and some places you should not drill, and the front porch of Yellowstone National Park is one of them.” 

The Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, which was formed to oppose the mining proposals, applauded the moratorium.

The two current mining exploration applications near Yellowstone were submitted by the Canadian company Lucky Minerals to explore for gold, silver, molybdenum and other minerals in Emigrant Gulch and the Crevice Mining Group, which plans to explore for gold in the Crevice region northeast of Jardine. 

Shaun Dykes, a vice-president of Lucky Minerals, said the exploration process would have had minimal impact on the Emigrant Peak area, which has been mined since the 1860s. Dykes withdrew his application to explore on public lands. His application to explore on private land is still before the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

“They should have let us drill,” he said in a Nov. 23 interview. “We might not have liked what we found and gone away.”


4. Park High School weathers challenges in rough year

Park High School officials had their hands full this year responding to a number of unforeseen events. 

During 2016, the school had to recover from the suicide deaths of two students, as well as Confederate flag and staff controversies. 

In February, two students took their own lives less than a week apart from each other. After the second teen death on Feb. 20, the Livingston School District and mental health experts joined forces to address the issue and help the community recover. School assemblies were held, candle light vigils and resources were made available to students, their families, and community members during the following months. 

In April, controversy stirred at PHS when two students displayed Confederate flags in the back of their pickup trucks, disrupting classes and prompting numerous parents to visit the school in outrage. Shortly after the flags’ display there were reports of students allegedly making racial comments, as well as an alleged theft and burning of a student’s Confederate flag during a student protest.  

In May, the Livingston School District board faced  controversy around the termination of Vice Principal Tom Gauthier, who was arrested May 7 after police say he fled from officers while driving under the influence. Gauthier was placed on administrative leave May 9 until the school board cast their votes 4-3 later that month deciding not to renew his contract. Gauthier did not return to his position following the board’s decision.

Lastly, PHS head football coach Bruce Knerr was fired following an Aug. 11 football leadership retreat, which left one 17-year-old student with injuries. 

Videos showing students engaged in MMA-style boxing during the retreat, as well as reports of inappropriate electronic communications with multiple students came to light. 

The board voted unanimously to terminate the football coach’s contract after a special meeting on August 18. 


5. National Parks Service celebrates 100 years

On August 25, people flocked to Gardiner to celebrate the National Park Service Centennial with the Evening of the Arch. 

The town of Gardiner and Park County worked with NPS to put together a night to celebrate a 100th anniversary of the agency under the Roosevelt Arch on the edge of Yellowstone National Park, the nation’s first park. The event included multiple musical guests, speeches and presentations. The town planned for two years for the event after many rounds of maintenance around the arch. 

Some of the musical guests included Grammy-winners Emmylou Harris and John Prine as well as national choir groups, jazz and folk players. 

Speakers were Wyoming and Montana governors, park service officials and Theodore Roosevelt’s great-great-grandson all touting the parks as “America’s best idea.” Actor Bill Pullman was the Master of Ceremonies.

Over 6,000 people attended the event that spanned from the area’s iconic arch to the Gardiner School’s football field, while the centennial was broadcasted and viewed by many more. 

In Livingston, Miles Park and the downtown both had events to commemorate the centennial with a live broadcast of the event from Gardiner on a big screen. Music, food and carriage rides were also available for the nearly 1,000 people who attended. 


6. Local elections, close races

Close races had voters on the edge of their seats as the last ballots were totaled and results released by elections officials this November.Hand counting a remaining 288 provisional absentee ballots with 75 percent voter turn out, Montana House District 60 Democratic candidate Laurie Bishop and Park County Commission District 2 candidate Bill Berg emerged as the winners in close races. In addition, a Livingston-Park County Public Library mill levy ballot issue was very close passing with 4,686 in favor and 4,563 against. 

In the House District 60 race, Democratic challenger Laurie Bishop received 2,858 votes to 2,607 for Republican incumbent Debra Lamm. 

In the Park County Commission race, Bill Berg received 3,720 votes and incumbent Marty Malone received 3,522.

In other races, incumbent Commission District 3 candidate Clint Tinsley held on to his seat winning with 41 percent of the vote, incumbent Republican representative for House District 59 won with 67 percent of the votes and Public Service Commission incumbent Republican candidate Roger Koopman restablished his District 3 seat with 47 percent of the vote. In addition, Park County voters retained incumbents Maritza Reddington as Clerk and Recorder and Martha Miller as County Auditor. 

In other ballot issues, the Wilsall Fire District mill levy passed with 64 percent of voters in favor of the five new mills.  


7. Rep. Zinke tapped for Interior

Montana Republican Congressman Ryan Zinke was selected by President-elect Donald Trump as the possible Secretary of the Interior earlier in December. 

In Park County, locals have expressed mixed feelings about the selection. 

He said in a meeting with the Enterprise in June that he was opposed to mining around Park County. Two projects that were proposed in Paradise Valley have since been put under a moratorium. 

“There’s places to mine. I just can’t see where mining around Yellowstone National Park or Glacier meets the greater good,” Zinke said.

Local HD 59 Representative Alan Redfield said he thinks Zinke is an excellent choice for the position of Interior Secretary.

“He’s more moderate,” Redfield said. “He’s not the wild-eyed environmentalist and not wildly to the right. And he’s very concerned about the natural resource.” 

However, others have been more skeptical of Zinke’s land policies. A pro-environmental organization, the Montana League of Conservation voters, said in a statement Zinke has put “the interests of mining companies and corporate interests ahead of Montana’s values” and has not “acknowledged the imperative to act on the danger to our land and water caused by climate change.” 

If confirmed by the Senate, Zinke would control more than 500 million acres of federal public land across the U.S.   


8. Grizzly bear delisting

In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 

proposed removing — “delisting” — Yellowstone National Park-region grizzly bears from the protections of the Endangered Species List. 

Proponents say the grizzly bear population has increased from a low of about 136 bears in 1975 to an estimated 700 or more today. Bears have expanded into additional territory, and it’s time to hand the species’ management over to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, the states surrounding Yellowstone, as outlined in the Endangered Species Act. 

Opponents are concerned the delisting plan does not adequately consider changes in habitat and food sources caused by climate change. 

Opponents are also appalled by the idea of a grizzly bear hunting season, which would be implemented in all three states as part of their collective management plan when the delisting process is completed. 

In September, the FWS extended the period it would accept public comments on the delisting proposal to Oct. 7. 

Grizzly bear advocate Doug Peacock called the delisting “the worst news for the grizzly bear since white Europeans entered the Rocky Mountains,” while Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said many Montana hunters look forward to the possibility of “the ultimate challenge.” 


9. Jim Harrison dies at 78 

World-renowned author and longtime, part-time Livingston resident Jim Harrison died March 26 at his Patagonia, Arizona home. 

Harrison was the author of more than 30 novels and several volumes of poetry. His work appeared in numerous national magazines — including The New Yorker and Esquire — and literary journals, and he wrote a number of screenplays for Hollywood. For those not familiar with Harrison’s work, he may be best known for his novel “Legends of the Fall,” which was made into the 1994 movie starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins.

Author Terry Tempest Williams wrote of Harrison:

“He had no use for irony, he wrote life straight up with a heightened understanding of what makes us human. He embraced the world in all its beauty and brutality. His irreverence was holy. His one-eyed wit disarming.” 

Harrison, who was also a poet, granted The Enterprise a lengthy interview in May, 2015. He quoted the poet W.H. Auden, who said writers have to be “word drunks.”

“If you aren’t drunk on words, why aren’t you selling real estate?” he said. 


10. Emigrant gravel pit 

More than 200 angry Paradise Valley residents packed a town hall meeting in June to attend a Montana Department of Environmental Quality meeting on a proposal by Riverside Contracting, Inc., of Missoula, to establish a gravel pit and asphalt mixing plant on property owned by Robert Story. 

The proposed pit is a 23.7-acre site located on the west side of U.S. Highway 89 South at mile marker 27, approximately 3.8 miles south of the Emigrant four-way flashing traffic light. 

Citizens cited concerns about air and water quality, noise, and the threat to nearby archaelogical sites and wildlife corridors. 

Opponents formed a group called Emigrant Neighbors. 

The DEQ issued RCI a “deficiency notice” in late September, noting concerns that were not adequately addressed in the application. An applicant has a year to reply. 

Story’s buy-sell agreement with RCI expired in October, and the property was listed for sale, but did not sell. Story took the property off the market when it didn’t sell, and said a gravel pit is “not off the table.”