The sun descends into the smoke hovering over Bozeman on Friday, September 1, 2017.

The sun descends into the thick layer of smoke hovering over Bozeman on Sept. 1, 2017. In 2017, fires consumed more than 438,000 acres of land in Montana, making it the state's worst fire season since 1910.

State of Change is a series the Bozeman Daily Chronicle newsroom compiled throughout 2019. Chronicle journalists fanned out across Montana to report on how climate change is impacting the state; from how people are responding now to what we can expect in the future

As the newspaper's lone visual journalist, I was responsible for all the visual elements in this 16-part series. The project capped off with a 12-hour drive to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation to tell the story of the Keystone XL pipeline and its proposed crossing under the Missouri River, the last source of fresh drinking water for the 30,000 people living in that part of the state.

The following images, video and audio are from this series, accompanied by expanded captions and text based on reporting by Chronicle journalists.

The sun sets in a blaze of orange on the Yellowstone River on Aug. 23, 2019, near Terry.

The sun sets in a blaze of orange on the Yellowstone River on Aug. 23, 2019, near Terry. Montana’s famous clean and cold trout streams closed to fishermen for weeks in several recent summers when warm water temperatures threatened or killed trout. In the summer of 2016, the Yellowstone River was closed for 184 miles in the wake of a massive die-off of mountain whitefish.

The 2017 Montana Climate Assessment, the first major report on climate change in the state, shows that Montana is warming at a faster rate than the national average. As an interior state, Montana is far from oceans that moderate temperatures. The average temperature for the United States has increased 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950, while in Montana is has risen 2.7 degrees.

-Reporter Gail Schontzler

Gary and Paul Broyles itch at bug bites in the middle of a green field full of ripening wheat on their family farm, July 16, 2019, near Rapelje. The Broyles have been participating in a Montana State University study using data and experimentation to buil

Gary and Paul Broyles itch at bug bites in the middle of a green field full of ripening wheat on their family farm, July 16, 2019.

Gary Broyles points to large kernel at the top of a wheat stalk on July 16, 2019, at his Rapelje farm. The Broyles have been participating in a Montana State University study using data and experimentation to build up a case for "precision agriculture," d

Gary Broyles points to large kernel at the top of a wheat stalk on July 16, 2019. 

The ways climate change will challenge farmers are numerous and varied. The growing season is expected to get longer, but there will be more hot days, which could make it tougher for crops to absorb water. How and when that water arrives is also likely to change, too — less rain in the summer, more in the fall, winter and spring. Drought, when it happens is expected to be more intense.

In the middle of all that, farmers will still be trying to make a living. They’ll make decisions about what and when to plant and how much fertilizer or other chemicals to use. The impacts are going to vary from farm to farm, and this sort of field-specific research can help farmers make better guesses about what to do next.

-Reporter Michael Wright

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POPLAR— From the Fort Peck Dam downstream, the Missouri River snakes along, defining the Fort Peck Indian Reservation’s southern border. People across northeastern Montana rely on it. It’s their lifeline.
The reservation’s 6,800 people are scattered across more than 2 million acres of land in the northeast corner of Montana. The reservation is dominated by agriculture. There are 11 irrigation districts and many individual irrigators who draw water from the river for their crops.
The river feeds into the Assiniboine and Sioux Rural Water Supply System, which supplies water for people both on and off the reservation. It cleans an average of 2.5 million to 5 million gallons of water a day, depending on demand. The plant distributes the water to about 20,000 people on the reservation and in Glasgow, Scobey, Plentywood and Culbertson.
That’s why some people here don’t trust a Canadian oil company’s proposal to dig a hole under the Missouri River for a pipeline to send up to 830,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

-Reporter Freddy Monares

Rain falls on the Fort Peck tribal building on September 11, 2019, in Poplar.

Rain falls on the Fort Peck tribal building on Sept. 11, 2019, in Poplar.

Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, state Attorney General Tim Fox and several other politicians have come forward in support of the pipeline, saying it would boost the state’s economy.

But leaders on the Fort Peck Reservation don’t buy it, like Sen. Frank Smith, D-Poplar, who’s concerned about the threat it could pose to the river.

With a history of groundwater contamination on the reservation from past oil practices, tribal leaders said, the pipeline’s placement threatens the last two sources of clean drinking water — the Missouri and Milk Rivers. They want a plan from the energy company for how it would clean the water if the pipe leaked. They say they have received no reply.

-Reporter Freddy Monares

The Missouri River drifts past the Fort Peck Reservation on September 11, 2019.

The Missouri River drifts past the Fort Peck Reservation on Sept. 11, 2019.

Chairman of the Fort Peck Tribes, Floyd Azure, said tribal officials were put on the back burner when it came to planning the pipeline’s location. The tribes’ legislators and officials pushed the company, and two meetings eventually happened in Miles City. But Azure said the meetings were a waste of his time because tribal concerns were not addressed.

“They don’t care about us. Period. They have done nothing to reach out to us,” he said.

Azure said he’s lost trust in the oil company because, for them, it’s about the “almighty dollar.” Despite the tribes’ concerns, he said, the company isn’t willing to change its project.

If a rupture happens, Azure said, he’s not sure how the reservation would get clean drinking water.

“I got enough problems with what’s happening on my reservation right now: poverty, drugs, drinking and all that. That’s what’s happening on the day-to-day,” Azure said. “I do not need another problem on my shoulders, where I have to worry about whether the pipeline is going to break or not.”

-Reporter Freddy Monares

Coal haulers remove coal from a vein about 155 to 190 feet below ground on Aug. 28, 2019, at the Rosebud Mine outside of Colstrip.

A vein of coal sits about 155 to 190 feet below ground on Aug. 28, 2019, at the Rosebud Mine.

"COLSTRIP— It’s not hard to imagine a future for Montana’s coal industry when staring up at a 155-foot wall of a coal pit or watching a 300-ton truck carry the black rock through the Westmoreland Rosebud Mine, a few miles from here.

Industry leaders reckon the Rosebud Mine contains enough recoverable coal for at least another 20 years of mining.

That could mean another 20 years of steady income for miners, power plant employees and their families. Another 20 years of profits for local businesses, money for schools and cash for Montana’s Coal Severance Tax Trust Fund, which pays for countless state services. And another 20 years of sky high rates of carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

But the coal industry is too volatile for 20-year predictions.

People don’t agree on the reason behind coal’s decline. Conservationists and some economists argue coal-fired power has become too expensive and is being pushed out by cheap natural gas and renewable energy. They also argue the environmental impact of mining coal, burning it and emitting carbon — a major driver of climate change — is too great a price for continued use."
-Reporter Shaylee Rager


A four-mile-long conveyor belt supplies millions of tons of coal from the Rosebud Mine to the Costrip Power Plant in Colstrip. All of the Rosebud Mine's coal is burned at the power plant.

A 4-mile-long conveyor belt supplies millions of tons of coal from the Rosebud Mine to the Costrip Power Plant in Colstrip. All of the Rosebud Mine's coal is burned at the power plant.

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Washington-based Puget Sound Energy and Talen Energy of Pennsylvania own units 1 and 2 of the Colstrip Power Plant. Talen announced in June the units would be permanently retired by the end of 2019.

The retirement has been scheduled since 2016, when the Sierra Club and Montana Environmental Information Center settled a lawsuit filed against the utilities in protest of the plant’s air pollution. The same year, Montana was ranked sixth in the U.S. for carbon emissions per capita by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The agreement required the two units to shut down no later than 2022.

Units 3 and 4 of the plant remain in operation. Puget Sound and Talen own shares along with Avista Corp., Portland General Electric, PacifiCorp and Northwestern Energy. It’s not clear if these units will live to see 2030. Utilities are feeling pressure to drastically reduce carbon emissions in the coming years.

-Reporter Shaylee Rager

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The enormous Colstrip Power Plant sits on the Eastern edge of Colstrip on Aug. 27, 2019. Units 1 and 2 of the plant are scheduled to retire at the end of 2019. The retirement is part of a settlement reached after the Sierra Club and Montana Environmental

The Colstrip Power Plant dominates the skyline on the eastern edge of Colstrip. Ownership of one of the largest coal-fired plants in the Western U.S. is split between six ownership groups: Puget Sound Energy, PacifiCorp, Portland General Electric, Avista, and NorthWestern Energy. Units 1 and 2 came online in the mid-1970s with Units 3 and 4 following in 1983 and 1985.

Nestled alongside Highway 191, between Judith Gap and Harlowtown, cows graze next to 262-foot-tall wind turbines. The 90 odd turbines, owned by Judith Gap Wind Energy, constitute the first wind farm in Montana, producing 135 megawatts of energy — enough to power about 56,000 homes — on 8,300 acres of ranch land.

-Reporter Freddy Monares

Rope access blade repair technicians are hired to repair a damaged fiberglass blade on a 262 foot wind turbine on August 6, 2019, at the Judith Gap Wind Farm.

A sign warns motorists of "gusty crosswinds" outside of the Judith Gap Wind Farm on Aug. 6, 2019. 


Michael Prater, operations and maintenance manager for the farm, has worked in wind energy since 2006 in Texas, Colorado, California and Idaho.

“This, by far, is the windiest place,” he said.

In the industry, Prater said, everything is measured in meters per second — 15 meters per second is particularly windy. That’s nothing for central Montana, he said, adding that he’s seen wind speeds get up to 29 meters per second, which requires shutting down turbines to prevent them from breaking.

Capturing that type of wind could help Western states reach carbon neutrality and reduce human impact on the climate.

Transportation and energy production from fossil fuels in the U.S. make up 57% of greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat and make the planet warmer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Advocates say we could replace fossil fuels with renewables and still keep the lights on.

But in a place where coal mining has been the chief way of producing energy and a decent way of life, it’s been a battle to uproot the system and transition to clean energy.

-Reporter Freddy Monares

Judith Gap Wind Farm turbines rotate in the breeze on August 6, 2019. The turbines sit on 8,300 acres of active ranch land North of Harlowton.

Invenergy, the Judith Gap Wind Energy developer, pays more than $1.5 million to Wheatland County in taxes and more than $400,000 a year to lease the land. Most wind farms benefit the towns they are in through paying taxes and helping to lower energy costs when they produce an excess.

Michael Prater, operations and maintenance manager of the Judith Gap Wind Farm, sports a wind turbine sticker on the back of his truck,  August 6, 2019, at the Judith Gap Wind Farm.

A sticker of two turbines decorates the back of Prater's truck.

Jeff Fox, policy manager for Renewable Northwest, a renewable energy advocacy organization, says that being able to store power produced by clean resources is a key component for making renewable energy reliable. A new hydro project in Montana could do just that, helping to serve the needs of the northwest states and keeping Montana a “powerhouse for the region."

The site for that proposed project is in Martinsdale, about 45 miles southwest of Judith Gap. That’s where Carl Borgquist, president of Absaroka Energy, plans to dig up a large flat area atop a butte as well as below it for a sort of water battery.

-Reporter Freddy Monares

Carl Borgquist, CEO and President of Absaroka Energy, gives a tour of the site where his company plans to build a closed-loop storage hydro facility. The proposed Gordon Butte Pumped Storage Hydro Project will sit on the 71 Ranch, about three miles West o

Carl Borgquist, CEO and president of Absaroka Energy, gives a tour of the site where his company plans to build a closed-loop storage hydro facility. The proposed Gordon Butte Pumped Storage Hydro Project will sit on the 71 Ranch, about three miles west of Martinsdale.

Borgquist says the $1 billion project would help meet energy demands when other sources can’t.

When excess electricity is running through the grid at times of low demand, he said, the pump will pull some of it off the grid to pull water up to the higher pond. During high demands of electricity — like summertime when people are using air conditioners — water will spill out from the higher pond to the lower pond, turning turbines to generate power.

Renewables will need something to balance and make them reliable. Borgquist said that’s where his hydro pump comes into play.

“I’ve tried to talk about it as kind of the life raft,” he said. “The grid just can’t manage renewable without this balancing act.”

-Reporter Freddy Monares

Rev. Connie Campbell-Pearson, a deacon at St. James Episcopal Church, and Rev. Jody McDevitt, a co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church, discuss faith and climate change during an interview on July 31, 2019, at First Presbyterian Church.

Rev. Connie Campbell-Pearson, a deacon at St. James Episcopal, and Rev. Jody McDevitt, a co-pastor of First Presbyterian, discuss faith and climate change during an interview on July 31, 2019, at First Presbyterian. St. James Episcopal and Resurrection Parish are the first churches in Bozeman to install solar panels on their roofs to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. They believe it’s their duty to protect God’s creation.


Solar panels have become a common sight around Bozeman and around the country. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the solar industry has increased 35-fold since 2008, and the number of jobs generated by the industry has increased by 160% since 2010.

However, Montana hasn’t kept up with national solar growth. There are a number of reasons for that, including policy-making that caps benefits to solar use, as well as challenges to integrating solar energy into the state’s electrical grid.

-Reporter Shaylee Rager

Last summer, OnSite Energy began installing 160 solar panels behind the Deer Park Chalet at Bridger Bowl Ski Area. Once the project is completed in November, the panels are projected to offset 50% to 65% of the snow making activity at Bridger Bowl.

Last summer, OnSite Energy began installing 160 solar panels behind the Deer Park Chalet at Bridger Bowl Ski Area. In rough estimations, Bridger’s solar system will be able to power the Snowflake chairlift, two conveyor lifts and the patrol building, which houses Eagle Mount and the Bridger Ski Foundation. The panels will also offset between 50% and 65% of the ski hill’s snowmaking operation, said Bonnie Hickey, sustainability director at Bridger Bowl.

Net-metering is required by law and allows people who generate their own electricity to export the energy they don’t use back on the electric grid. In return, they get credit on their utility bills. But that’s capped to 50 kilowatts for customers of NorthWestern Energy, Montana’s largest utility, and the Montana-Dakota Utilities’ service areas.

Brian Fadie, clean energy program director for the Montana Environmental Information Center, said that number is arbitrary. While 50 kilowatts is more than enough for a residential property, there are property owners who could benefit from much larger solar systems, but they’re limited.

This cap is applied per address, not per meter. For example, Bridger Bowl has 15 meters, but is limited to the 50 kilowatt cap for the entire property.

-Reporter Shaylee Rager

Conor Darby, co-founder of OnSite Energy, poses for a photo in the company's main office and shop space on Oct. 29, 2019.

Conor Darby, co-founder of OnSite Energy, poses for a photo in his company's main office and shop space on Oct. 29, 2019. Darby has worked in the residential solar industry since 2005, and started OnSite in 2012. He said that when the price of materials used to make solar panels dropped, his business changed dramatically. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that since 2014, the cost of solar photovoltaic panels has been cut nearly in half.

Some lawmakers and solar advocates have pushed to update that regulation, but have not yet been successful. NorthWestern has lobbied to keep the cap.

Further, NorthWestern is asking the Montana Public Service Commission to allow an added fee for net-metered energy charged to customers with new residential solar installations. The proposal is part of a larger request NorthWestern is making to raise rates for its Montana customers.

Jo Dee Black, spokesperson for NorthWestern, said that proposal aims to balance out the rates paid by rooftop solar owners and other customers, who bear the cost of maintenance of the electric grid. She said it would only affect customers who install rooftop solar after the regulation change.

Solar advocates argue that the fee would shut down the rooftop solar industry in Montana.

“To go after a small jobs industry, if you will, that’s important to Montanans, as consumers, and represents less than a percent of the energy supply to the NorthWestern load base, I personally find it offensive,” Darby said. 

-Reporter Shaylee Rager

Dave Carlson points to the 15 solar panels he installed on the roof of his workshop in January of 2017.

Dave Carlson points to the 15 solar panels he installed on the roof of his workshop in Jan. 2017. Originally an oceanographer, Carlson worked as a United Nations diplomat in Geneva, Switzerland as the director of the World Climate Research Programme before moving to Bozeman.

“We are on the far edge of a crisis, about ready to fall into a disaster,” according to Dave Carlson.

After working on climate change at the global level, he’s now semi-retired and trying to make a difference at the hands-on, individual level.

The Carlsons hope to demonstrate that you can enjoy a comfortable life and still avoid burning the fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases and worsen global warming.

-Reporter Gail Schontzler

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