Montana’s Environment in 2023: Climate Trial, Train Derailment, and Bison Management

A Recap of the Key Stories That Shaped Montana’s Water, Wildlife, and Energy Landscape

In 2023, Montana witnessed a series of significant events that had a profound impact on its environment. From a groundbreaking climate trial to a train derailment that contaminated the Yellowstone River, these stories captured national and international attention. The future of Colstrip’s coal-fired power plant, Yellowstone National Park’s bison management, and Northwestern Energy’s rate hikes and new gas plant also made headlines. Additionally, the potential removal of endangered species protections for grizzly bears and the effects of drought on Flathead Lake and trout populations in southwest Montana were major concerns. This article provides a comprehensive summary of these stories, shedding light on the ongoing challenges and opportunities facing Montana’s environment.

Young Montanans Win Climate Lawsuit, Citing State Constitution’s ‘Clean and Healthful Environment’ Guarantee:

Sixteen young Montanans made history by taking the state to court over its energy policies. In the landmark case of Held v. Montana, the plaintiffs argued that the state’s guarantee to a “clean and healthful environment” was being violated by climate change. Despite the state’s claim that its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is insignificant, Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, emphasizing the need for science-based actions to address climate change. The state has appealed the decision to the Montana Supreme Court, setting the stage for a crucial legal battle in the coming year.

More Than 400,000 Pounds of Asphalt Enter Yellowstone River After Train Derailment:

A train derailment in June resulted in a massive release of molten asphalt into the Yellowstone River. The incident sparked a months-long cleanup effort, with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality issuing a do-not-consume advisory for fish caught downstream due to elevated levels of hydrocarbons in their tissue. The environmental and economic repercussions of this incident continue to be a cause for concern.

Colstrip’s Rollercoaster Year:

The future of Colstrip’s coal-fired power plant faced uncertainty throughout 2023. NorthWestern Energy’s acquisition of a larger ownership stake in the plant was seen as a positive development for its continued operation. However, the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling that the Department of Environmental Quality had unlawfully permitted an expansion of the mine supplying the plant with coal raised significant legal and environmental concerns. The court’s decision highlighted the need for proper assessment of the potential impacts on nearby surface waters.

Yellowstone National Park Eyes Bison Management Reform:

A snowy winter led to an exodus of bison from Yellowstone National Park, resulting in a record number of bison deaths due to hunting. In response, the park released a document outlining new strategies for bison management, challenging the notion that bison-to-livestock brucellosis transmission is a significant risk. The park’s decision on a preferred alternative for bison management in 2024 is expected to reignite the debate between federal and state wildlife agencies.

Northwestern Energy Raises Rates, Moves Forward with New Gas Plant:

Montana’s largest utility, Northwestern Energy, faced controversy in 2023. The Public Service Commission approved a substantial rate hike, drawing criticism from detractors. Simultaneously, the construction of a new gas plant near Laurel faced legal challenges, with a permit initially revoked due to concerns about greenhouse gas emissions. However, the permit was reinstated, allowing construction to proceed. The youth climate plaintiffs have since asked the Montana Supreme Court to invalidate or suspend the gas plant’s permit until their case is resolved.

Feds Explore Removal of Endangered Species Act Protections for Grizzlies:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a review of federal protections for grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and Yellowstone area. While state officials welcomed the potential delisting, environmentalists expressed concerns about the consequences of state management. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks released a draft plan for grizzly management, which is still awaiting finalization. The fate of grizzlies in Montana remains a contentious issue.

Drought Drops Flathead Lake Levels; Popular Southwest Montana Angling Destinations See Decline in Trout Populations:

Despite a snowy winter, northwestern Montana experienced below-average precipitation, leading to low water levels in Flathead Lake. The management of the dam at the lake’s lower end came under scrutiny. In southwest Montana, record low trout counts in the Big Hole River raised concerns among anglers. Research efforts are underway to determine the factors contributing to the decline in rainbow and brown trout populations.

Tribal Governments Turn Up the Heat on Transboundary Coal-Mining Pollution:

Tribal governments on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border intensified their calls for tighter regulation of a coal-mining operation that has been polluting waterways with selenium and nitrogen. Efforts to address this issue have been ongoing for over a decade, with tribal governments urging the International Joint Commission to bring more transparency and oversight to waterborne pollution. A recent meeting between stakeholder governments brought some progress, and further developments are expected in 2024.


The year 2023 was filled with significant events that shaped Montana’s environment. From the groundbreaking climate trial to the train derailment that contaminated the Yellowstone River, these stories highlighted the ongoing challenges facing the state. The future of Colstrip’s coal-fired power plant, Yellowstone National Park’s bison management, and Northwestern Energy’s rate hikes and new gas plant remain key issues to watch. The potential delisting of grizzly bears, the effects of drought on Flathead Lake, and the concerns surrounding transboundary coal-mining pollution also demand attention. As Montana moves forward, it must navigate these complex environmental issues to ensure the preservation and sustainability of its natural resources.

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