Prairie Lights: Looking back on, trying to forget, 2016


Yellowstone National Park

Some folks were happy, briefly, in 2016.

We think it’s safe to say that 2016 will always be remembered as the year that tens of millions of people wish they couldn’t remember.

It was a year in which the people of England voted to withdraw from the United Kingdom, Russian government hackers blatantly attempted to influence the outcome of “The Voice” and in America the unthinkable happened—the Chicago Bulls won the World Series.

Before the year disappears into history—or people pay neurosurgeons to scrub the region of the brain responsible for short-term memory—let’s take a look back at some of the biggest stories of the year in Montana and the Billings area.

2016, or Year of the Ass as it was known in China, got off to a rousing start when a vanload of Red Lodge cops executed a drug bust in Bearcreek, six miles beyond the department’s area of jurisdiction.

Police officers would later blame the caper on a Google maps malfunction, but scuttlebutt in town was that the police were trying to punish the spunky little burg of Bearcreek—specifically, the Bear Creek Saloon and its wildly popular pig races— for trying to horn in on Red Lodge’s tourist trade.

As usual, nothing at all happened in the “F” month, but then in March the editor of the Missoulian was suspended for packing heat to work. He later quit and was immediately offered a job as Second Amendment adviser to long-shot presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Also in March, the Centers for Disease Control issued an advisory warning visitors to Yellowstone National Park to keep their distance from dangerous wildlife, and to definitely resist the temptation to take “bison selfies.”

The ink on the advisory had not even dried when a tourist from France was tossed high into the air by a contemptuous bison. As luck would have it, the Frenchman landed on a Minnesota tourist doing a handstand on the thin surface crust on the edge of Morning Glory Pool. Both men survived a scalding but were dragged off by wolves.

In May, Outside Magazine proclaimed Billings the best town in America in which to buy made-in-China Montana-themed trinkets. Infuriated, the mayor of Red Lodge ordered the police department to raid the offices of the Billings Chamber of Commerce.

Also in May, Donald Trump was campaigning in Yellowstone National Park when he came upon an abandoned bison calf, which he put in the trunk of his armored limo and later sent as a gift to Vladimir Putin, the strongly built Russian strongman with unusually large hands.

Early in the summer, a pair of eccentric philanthropists announced the opening near Columbus of Tippet Rise, a collection of monumental sculptures and world-class music and theater venues, all disguised as a working ranch. Four hundred baffled cows were offered free counseling.

Feeling intense pressure from Red Lodge, Bearcreek and now Columbus, tourism promoters in Billings persuaded a trio of developers from Colorado to announce, in August, that they intended to build the world’s largest hog-themed amusement park, One Big Sty Center, in downtown Billings.

A firestorm of criticism erupted after Billings Mayor Tom Hanel said in a public meeting that as much as he would like to “bring home the bacon,” maybe the hogs would feel more welcome in Missoula or Bozeman.

Toward the end of summer, fisheries biologists decided to close 180 miles of the Yellowstone River, after it was determined that several species of fish that had been following the 2016 presidential campaign had come down with whirling disease, which made them dizzy to the point of wanting to kill themselves.

And in September, in a shocking turn of events that no one could have predicted, Billings police officers won a $3 million judgment against the city of Billings in a dispute over wages. Attorneys for the city argued that because police union negotiators pronounced “longevity” with a hard “g” during contract talks, the city should not have been obligated to give out years-of-service pay increases.

Two different judges laughed out loud when they heard the city’s argument, but despite losing in court almost as often as the Chicago Bulls failed to win the World Series, the City Council voted to appeal the decision.

Later that month, the Billings Gazette announced it would no longer allow readers to post comments under stories on the newspaper’s website. An estimated 45 terminal jackasses, who between them had posted 19 million eyeball-melting comments over the previous decade, accused the Gazette of violating the First Amendment, proving they had read the First Amendment about as closely as they had read the stories to which their comments were attached.

In October, just as the presidential campaign was reaching a fever pitch, a “clown panic” swept the nation. Even in Montana, ordinarily a beacon of good sense, people actually called the police to report sightings of threatening clowns. The new normal seemed to be stark-raving mad.

In November, ascendant Republicans marched into power. The only glitch in Montana occurred when a homophobic delegate to the U.S. Electoral College, acting on rumors that Donald Trump was gay, refused to cast a vote for him.

At year’s end, a resident of Whitefish who had been bullied as a child because of his tiny black mustache struck back by announcing a campaign to change the name of the town to Whitesonlyfish.

The move was denounced by virtually everybody else in the state, with the notable exception of U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, himself allegedly a resident of Whitefish. Zinke, who had just been nominated to head the Interior Department, said he would wait to see President-elect Trump’s reaction before commenting on events in his hometown.

And on New Year’s Eve, a tourist from Indonesia, who was lighting off bottle rockets while sitting on the back of a bison calf in Yellowstone Park’s Norris Geyser Basin, was mauled by a grizzly bear who, upset by the election, had forgotten to go into hibernation.

Fortunately, the whole thing was filmed by a tourist from Italy, and before the year had even ended the resulting video was already a YouTube sensation.

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