2020 in Hindsight

Year-end review of top news stories in Judith Basin
Thursday, December 31, 2020
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In June, Tim McAllister received an engraved Bronze Star from Montana U.S. Senator Steve Daines. McAllister is shown receiving the honor surrounded by those who made this recognition possible, including (back row, from left) Doug Fellman, Shawn Harkins, Stephanie Ziegler, Pat Antonich, Peggy Hill, and Sandra Bossen, (middle row) Daines’ Field Representative Robin Baker, Mea Mathies of Geyser, (front row) Tory Bossen, McAllister, and Mia Bossen, with their dog Abby. Photo courtesy of Senator Steve Daines and Robin Baker

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A fire on Feb. 1 came alarmingly close to the home of Micky Anderson, who was evacuated. Had fire crews not arrived just in time, she likely would have lost her home. Photo courtesy of Sheanna Larson

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Stanford Bronze Artist Steve Lillegard works on a cowboy bust, titled “Dust in the Wind,” which received the greatest bid at $5,000 at this year's CMR Stampede Quick Finish. For a bronze, the clay sculpture is used to make a mold that is replaced with wax, which is then covered with a heat-resistant ceramic material and heated until the wax burns out. Next, bronze is poured where the wax had been. Photo by Melody Montgomery

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A comic piece about social distancing by Wally Badgett, a cartoonist out of Miles City, also went for $2,100 and was bought by John Sampsel Ṗhoto by Melody Montgomery

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Cody Monfils of Lewistown won first place in the Tiger Muskie Division of the Woodsy Cup Ice-Fishing Derby in January. This tiger muskie weighs 19.39 pounds and measures 41.5 inches. Photo courtesy of Nancy Epkes

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Triangle Baseball T-Ball Teammates Ian McCray (left) and Coy Hedrick return from a game in Denton. Photo by Melody Montgomery

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The Yogo Fire in the Little Belt Mountains in the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest began Oct. 7 and burned over 5,000 acres until it was contained on Oct. 23 following a snowstorm. Photo courtesy of Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.

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Tom Spika, who ranches near Kolin, lost two of three of his hay stacks. The Louse Creek Fire was close to his third hay stack and as the homes on his property. Photo courtesy of Tom Spika

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Hayes Stevenson is ecstatic about all of the pumpkin choices his family’s first annual pumpkin patch event, two days of fun-filled and ‘fun-raising’ activities for the surrounding communities. Photo courtesy of Deanna Stevenson

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Leading up to it, the year 2020 was a year many had only imagined. It carried an idea of possible perfection. In hindsight, 2020 was far from perfect. Despite 2020’s difficulties, the people of Judith Basin, while working through it, have demonstrated beauty, compassion, endurance, resilience, problem-solving and teamwork.

The new year started as any other, but then an unusual event occurred in February, the Eagle Rock Fire near Geyser. A wildfire is unexpected in the winter, but fortunately good leadership, dedicated volunteers, and a bit of help from geography allowed crews to pin the fire into a pond. Not a single home or life was lost.

Next a string of thefts began being reported. Even Nancy’s Country Market in Hobson was a victim. Then a former coach in Geyser was convicted of four felonies. It was becoming slightly more difficult from the perspective of an editor to inform while maintaining positive news.

All during this time, other news was beginning to surface of a novel virus. At the start, the novel virus seemed to be possibly of limited significance. Next, what can be likened to a tidal wave spread across the United States, even the rural county of Judith Basin.

In March, all schools in Montana moved to remote learning. Shelter-in-place directives were then implemented. In the meantime, much was unknown, and uncertainty was predominant.

Judith Basin, however, did not let the uncertainty stop life itself. Instead several annual events proceeded, but with special precautions or in altered formats. There were still baseball and swimming in the summer, the annual rodeo in Stanford, and many other outdoor events.

Judith Basin was among the last counties in Montana to report a positive COVID-19 case, which was on July 22. Presently, Judith Basin, with 77 confirmed cases to date, has the fourth-lowest COVID-19 cases by county in the Montana.

Even though Judith Basin residents are managing through the health crises, lives have undeniably been impacted in many ways. Fortunately, just a couple weeks ago, COVID-19 vaccines began arriving to Montana, bringing rays of hope for the end of the pandemic.

With undeniable concern and tragedy being predominant in 2020, there have been elements of hope and silver linings. As you will see from the top stories of 2020, COVID-19 was just one element in this complex, dynamic, beautiful and rural county and region.

Ackley Lake Club’s January Ice-Fishing Derby reels in the big one

The 14-inch layer of ice on Central Montana’s Ackley Lake was nearly as clear as glass on the 40-plus degree day on Saturday, January 29, 2020. In places, you could even see through the ice to the fish below, such as when Cody Monfils of Great Falls caught a 41.5-inch Tiger Muskie, winning the Tiger Muskie portion of the Woodsy Cup Ice-Fishing Derby sponsored by the Ackley Lake Club.

“[Seeing the tiger muskie brought in] was absolutely amazing,” said Gary Jones, a member of the Ackley Lake Club. “The ice was crystal clear. That fish looked six-feet long the way the ice magnified it.”

This tiger muskie was difficult to extract through a 10-inch hole in the ice, opening its mouth wider than the hole.

Jones assisted Monfils by bringing the tiger muskie out of the lake by hand.

“It may not be the recommended approach, but it is efficient and less harmful to the fish,” said Jones, adding that one of the tiger muskie’s teeth went all the way through his leather glove.

The winning tiger muskie was caught on the far south side of the lake, in shallower water, where the tiger muskie feed on smaller fish, said Jones. A different angler hooked at least one other tiger muskie, but the gear did not hold up to its weight and strength; it could not be reeled in, Jones said.

During the Summer of 2019, the Tiger Muskie Tournament on Ackley Lake brought in no muskies. The January catch was important in bringing awareness to the lake and potential for catching a true trophy fish. Many trophy catches followed, and Ackley Lake State Park was well utilized during the pandemic as a safer place to recreate.

Superbowl weekend fire scorches thousands of acres

In a burst of wind-stoked flames, thousands of acres burned between Raynesford and Geyser on Saturday, Feb. 1. A downed power line, in combination with high winds, caused the fire, which began off Eagle Rock Road, three miles east of Raynesford, on Darin and Angie Boberg’s property. The fire was first reported by Patrick Glenn, a wind farm worker, who went to the Boberg’s residence when he was traveling the roads near the wind farm, looking out for the area. Kaitlyn Boberg called 911. The Boberg children and their grandmother, being inside the house, would not have known there was a fire were it not for Glenn.

Due to the dry conditions and intense wind, locals likened the elements of this fire, the Eagle Rock Fire, to major fires of the past like the Strand and Turkey Fires. Other fires occurred in Fergus county at the same time.

During the Eagle Rock Fire, fortunately, no homes were consumed. Crews were able to direct the flames away from most of homes and equipment, although stretches of fence line were affected, as well as hay.

After the its start, flames moved fast, prompting evacuations of several households.

“In places, the fire was probably moving 50 – 60 miles per hour depending on where it was at,” said Geyser Rural Fire Chief Annala.

In addition to the Bobergs, flames travelled through the properties of Bruce and Julie Belloumini, Mertle “Micky” Anderson, Keith Harlow, Peggy Hill, Dave and Vicky McCray and Jeremy and Amber Milburn, and Jerome and Beverly Kolar.

The fire was stopped on gravel road portion of Highway 551 north out of Geyser.

In addition to a close-burning fire, visibility was limited.

“All you could see were the finger fires. The main fire was plain invisible [due to the smoke],” said Reed. “It was like a cyclone.”

Howell with DES said overall communication went as well as could be hoped for in such an intense situation.

“At the end, when the fire was under control, we looked down and saw a sea of flashing

lights from all the crews,” said Clayton’s wife Misty Annala.

Local photographer places faces to food suppliers

How did local individuals responsible for a substantial part the national and world food supply respond to what was happening across the planet during the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak? This was the question Central Montana photographer Kate Loose began to answer late last winter and early spring. Kate lives outside of Hobson and runs a full time photography business, Seven Diamond Photography.

Kate’s project during the pandemic, Real Ranchers, Real Life, captures the day-to-day lives of several Central Montana ranching families during the world pandemic. She photographed 18 Montana family ranches while keeping social distance with her 200 mm lens.

With over 10 years under her belt of being a professional photographer, Kate is now working toward launching a campaign to reach a broader audience while promoting the family values of agriculture.

“On the whole, these photos represent an isolated people but with a trusting generous spirit,” said Kate. “Ranchers are a modest bunch and often are not the first ones to promote themselves … At this moment I can’t not speak up,” said Kate.

Kate not only helped ranchers tell their stories but also helped shed light on how families in agriculture continued to work through COVID-19.

“When your food is disappearing off your grocery store shelves faster than it is being replaced, is anyone pausing to ask, who is responsible for providing it?” Kate asked, while through her work, showing the dedicated faces behind the scenes in rural Montana.

Search for Silver Linings in Cattle Industry

As COVID-19 outbreaks began to temporarily close or delay meat-processing capabilities in the United States last spring, the Judith Basin Press undertook a three-part series to look into issues in the cattle industry and ideally help others work towards solutions.

Montana ranchers and agricultural producers are, by and large, resilient problem solvers by their nature and occupation. Weathering storms is something with which they are all too familiar, and the current COVID-19 world pandemic is a stark reminder of the interdependent nature of the cattle industry in an otherwise relatively isolated livelihood.

Many news articles at the time painted a rather dismal picture of the effects of COVID-19 on cattle and food supply. Still, in searching for a silver lining, there was hope that by working together towards solutions, a brighter dawn would be on the horizon.

“It’s bleak on the immediate front, but I am impressed with the way Montanans have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Gilles Stockton while interviewed for the series. Stockton is a rancher out of Grass Ranch and the president of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association. “The only way out of this is some what long-term and to actually have the resolve to do something about the cattle market. It is important to ask, what can be done in the next six months that is truly meaningful?”

Steps began to take hold. Montana’s United States Legislators sought ways to help, and meat processing capacity began to expand across the State. Governor Bullock has helped with funding for increasing capacity. The problems facing agriculture are not yet solved, but COVID-19 shed light on cracks in the system that existed before the pandemic.

CMR Stampede Quick Finish raises record funds

When deciding whether to proceed with the 56th Annual C.M. Russell Stampede, held annually at the county fairgrounds in Stanford, Stampede Club Members had a difficult to decision to make. They wanted to continue to entertain and give back to the community, but they needed to weigh this decision with safety and attendance. For example, if very few showed up, it would be difficult for the Club to recover from a financial loss.

The Stampede Club is a charitable organization that gives to groups across Judith Basin, including the libraries, community centers and community clubs, the senior centers in Judith Basin, as well as a range of student activities and even helps provide school supplies for those in need.

“We could not do these things without the support of the people in our community,” said Stampede Club Member Steve Urick, who organized the socially distanced Quick Finish, with the help of others.

The Stampede Club’s 31st Quick Draw/ Quick Finish brought in artists from as far as the Washington and Oregon and as near as Stanford. The artists completed their works before the live, but spread out, audience milling around them.

With 17 artists participating, this amounts to an average of $2,000 per piece of artwork.

The Quick Finish alone raised a record $34,750. The piece raising the greatest amount was a bronze titled “COVID Cowboy (or ‘Dust in the Wind)” by Stanford Sculptor Steve Lillegard, which Central Drilling took this home for $5,000. ‘

Senator Daines presents Tim McAllister with Bronze Star

During the summer, Tim McAllister received from Senator Daines a set of military medals, including his long-lost Bronze Star, as well as copy of his place a Congressional Record for his service in World War II.

“I am grateful to Tim for his service to Montana and our nation in World War II,” Daines said. “It was an honor to formally recognize Tim’s brave actions in defense of our freedoms.”

McAllister served his country and saved two lives of his compatriots in the Philippines. McAllister received a Bronze Star, but it was lost over time and the paperwork to replace it never quite went through.

Following the article in the Judith Basin Press on Nov. 28, 2019, Daines’ staff interviewed McAllister for the Library of Congress Veterans’ History Project. McAllister was also recognized by Dainesas Montanan of the Week.

Daines called McAllister to personally send his greetings and offer his appreciation for Tim’s military service.

Of note, much of this recognition this stemmed from a simple act of kindness by Geyser Teacher Sandra Bossen and her class. Together Bossen and her young students created a nice card for McAllister after noticing was absent from the Geyser School’s Veteran’s Day Dinner.

This gesture so touched the-then 96-yearold veteran that it brightened the world around him, changing outlook and improving his life. Next, the Geyser School took it a step further and gave McAllister a Bronze Star in November 2019 to replace the one he had lost over the years. That Bronze star, while significant, was found on the internet. Daines made it official.

“I think it’s amazing that something so simple made such a difference in a man’s life,” said Bossen. “Tim [McAllister] felt that nobody knew he even existed anymore and then all these amazing things started to happen for him.”

Louse Creek Fire

High winds and extreme fire conditions on September 2 led to multiple fires in Central Montana. Two of the fires first reported were in Judith Basin County. These included a small fire at the Judith Basin County Feeds (formerly Bos Terra), which was caused by a malfunction in a feed processor, and the larger Louse Creek Fire, which was sparked by a bearing on a combine harvesting adjacent to Rod and Traci Mikklesen’s place. “It was a scary situation, and it amazed me

the number of people who showed up, and not just at my place, but everywhere,” said Rod Mikkelsen.

Dry conditions, miles of grassland, and homes laid out before the Louse Creek Fire. Countless volunteers and multiple fire districts responded to the call for help, including every fire department in Judith Basin County, as well as neighboring fire departments in Harlowton, Denton, Lewistown, Hilger, and Cottonwood Creek Beaver Creek rural fire, based in Moore. Cascade County was on call if needed. Judith Basin County provided two road graders. Moore Farmers Oil brought in water and fuel trucks. Fergus Electric was also prompt to get power back up and running.

“People came from everywhere,” said Hobson Rural Fire Chief Tater Erickson, who served as incident commander.

There were property losses from the Louse Creek Fire, including homestead buildings and outbuildings, hay, and forage, according to Erickson. These losses, still, would be considered minor in comparison to what was saved due to the emergency responders, volunteers, and neighbors.

This response was not without sacrifice. Individuals put others before themselves and rose to the call to protect the region. There were at least five individuals injured fighting the Louse Creek Fire, Erickson said.

There were three reports of burns, and one individual sustained 2nd-degree burns that may require skin grafts. Another individual suffered a concussion, and one was treated for smoke inhalation.

While these injuries are unfortunate for these heroes who put others first, it is because of them and others that no lives or homes were lost.

Montana DPHHS recognizes Hobson’s Bernard and Martie Taylor

During 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded Bernard and Martie Taylor of Hobson the 2020 EMS Volunteer Provider of the Year Award for their years of efforts to respond to emergencies, educate their communities on CPR and first aid, and improve emergency care in Montana. The Taylors were one of the six selected.

Bernard, sadly, passed away on Nov. 12 after his hard-fought battle with cancer. Bernard served his community because he cared for his community and understood civic responsibility from a young age growing up in Windham. Bernard received a hero’s home welcome to hospice care at his home in Hobson when he returned from medical treatment in Texas.

The Taylors were presented with the Volunteer of the Year Award locally by Hobson’s new Fire Chief Tater Erickson on August 31, surrounded by fellow emergency responders.

A larger recognition ceremony had been planned in Hobson for the Taylors, as well as an even larger ceremony by the DPHHS to honor award recipients across the state. However, due to COVID-19, the Hobson EMS crew opted for a very brief outdoor event to honor the Taylors, a couple who have done so much for their community and county.

The Taylors retired after more than 40 years of service with the Hobson Fire Department and Judith Basin Emergency Medical Services. The community-minded couple saved more lives than one could imagine. They were married in June of 1974 and took their first EMT class that December.

In the following years, they not only responded to countless kinds of emergency situations, they also led fundraising efforts for ambulances and fire trucks. Additionally, they taught CPR, first aid and EMT classes to others in their community.

In addition to 40 years of service in EMS, Bernard served as Fire Chief of Hobson for at least 30 years. He also helped Judith Basin Search and Rescue since 1975. He worked on some of the largest fires in the county, such as the Turkey Fire in 1988 that burned 52,000 acres and took 11 hours to put out, with wind gusts clocking 104 mph.

“The knowledge passed down from Bernard and Martie has had a hand in helping each and every one of the current EMTs be able to save lives,” Fire Chief Erickson told the Judith Basin Press. “Their experiences have also increased knowledge and helped tragedy be averted, like rumble strips on the highway saving future lives.”

Yogo Fire burns over 5,000 acres in the Little Belts

The Yogo Fire in the Little Belt Mountains and Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest began in the Judith Musselshell Ranger District around 10 miles east of Neihart, approximately a mile and a half from Yogo Peak, at 1:13 p.m. on October 3. The cause is remains unknown.

Within hours, the Yogo Fire moved to Prospect Ridge. By the next day, the Yogo Fire had grown significantly due to high winds, dry fuels and steep slopes.

Utilizing helicopters and air tankers, firefighters were able to make progress.

“Air attack efforts were hampered on the east side of the fire due to high winds, visibility concerns, and limited firefighting resources,” said the Forest Service.

From there, the Yogo Fire was burning between the Warm Springs Basin and Yogo Creek. Strong southwest winds pushed the fire 4-5 miles east of its origin into the Yogo Creek drainage to its the confluence point with Skunk Gulch.

Air Attack, helicopters, and district resources worked contain the fire. While they certainly helped, it is unlikely the fire would have been contained through men and women alone. Instead, it took a “season-ending event,” which in its case was heavy snow toward the end of October.

The Yogo Fire was 100 percent contained by Oct. 23. A total of 5,309 acres burned.

Stevenson Argus Ranch hosts first annual pumpkin patch

The Stevenson Angus Ranch is over 100 years old and well known near and far for its deep history, role in the American Angus Association, annual bull sale, breeding and genetics of cattle, along with offering high quality local beef products. This historic ranch is now also known for its first annual pumpkin patch due to sisters-in-law Deanna and Robin Stevenson, and many others helping out.

The event, held Saturday and Sunday, October 10 and 11, was a mix of fun and fundraising. As a licensed mental health counselor, Deanna recognized the need for a family friendly event during COVID-19 times.

Deanna began the pumpkin seedlings at home, and Robin prepared the soil at the pumpkin patch. Deanna hand-watered them every other day for a month before trusting their flood irrigation system.

The event also included a petting zoo. “For some people, this is one of the few times they get to interact with the animals,” Robin said.

The animals were just one aspect of the experience at the First Annual Stevenson Pumpkin Patch. Corrie Knerr of TruBlu Photography provided family portraits. Bob Stevenson and Force 10 Wresting sold concessions. Big Spring Brewing donated brews, for which the funds raised from their sale went towards Summer Horse Camps. A play area was also set up for small children, safely fenced in by a straw circle, with plenty of dirt and trucks to play with. There was also a slide supported by hay bales. There was the actual pumpkin patch where visitors picked out their very own homegrown pumpkins. Some made jack-o-lanterns from them; others made pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving.

Robin and Deanna hope this was a soft opening for what will become an annual event. A portion of the funds raised will be used toward improving the irrigation system for the pumpkin patch in 2021.

COVID-19 vaccine deployed to Montana

On December 11, the United States the Food and Drug Administration authorized the emergency use the first COVID-19 vaccine, Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19. Montana received thousands of doses of the Pfizer vaccine in December, which were initially distributed to healthcare workers.

The vaccine is injected at 0.3 mL into muscle tissue in two separate doses, three weeks apart, for individuals aged 16 and older.

Of note, this vaccine does not contain the virus that causes COVID-19 and therefore the vaccine does not cause COVID-19, according to the FDA in response to the frequently asked questions. Basically the vaccine is designed to prevent the SARS-CoV-2 virus from entering host cells. The vaccine is based on a protein of the virus (SARS-CoV-2 spike glycoprotein antigen) that plays a key role in how the virus attaches to and enters the host cell, according to an Oct. 2020 article in “Frontiers in Immunology” (https://www.frontiersin.org/ articles/10.3389/fimmu.2020.576622/full).

During the most recent phase 3 clinical trial, the vaccine was 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 (https://www.fda.gov/ media/144416/download), which has caused the deaths of over 1.5 million people across the globe to date and approaching 1,000 Montanans to date.