BILLINGS -- The Northern Rodeo Association will sanction 21 rodeos this season, starting next weekend in Poplar and ending with the 2020 finals in Kalispell.
NRA rodeos in Culbertson, Polson, East Helena and Conrad have already been postponed during Phase 1 of Governor Steve Bullock's plan to reopen Montana after the coronavirus pandemic placed heavy restrictions on Montanans, but the rest of the schedule is moving forward with enhanced social distancing and safety precautions.
According to executive secretary Theresa Sorlie, the top priority for the NRA and local committees alike is safety.
“Most committees are working on seating arrangements. We've also given them the guidelines how to keep our contestants safe, our personnel safe,” Sorlie said. “And it's based on, you know, what is asked of the state and the county health departments.”
Each NRA rodeo is unique in terms of competition, attendance and arena set up. Poplar, for example, doesn’t have stands for its season-opening rodeo. Most spectators drive up to the fence and watch from their vehicles or sit on tailgates.
On the flip side, the Choteau American Legion rodeo on July Fourth regularly draws thousands to Teton County. So, every committee is facing its own unique challenges.
"It is a little stressful. But I think the neat thing is everybody's coming together and working together and the NRA has come up with some guidelines to help the committees,” Sorlie said. “And then of course, the committees have worked to their state and county offices to get things worked through. I know we so appreciate what they're doing because there is a lot of extra and added work to doing it. But we have some awesome committees and they just are determined to rodeo.”
The NRA is in a better position to move ahead with its schedule than its counterparts at the PRCA because of the regional nature of NRA events.
“We are probably a more Montana-based association. I think another thing that makes us a little more flexible is we take entrees the Monday before the rodeo,” Sorlie said. “So, where the PRCA is taking entries so far out, we don't have to do that. It gives that committee a little more leeway if they need it.”
With rodeos around the country postponed or canceled, there’s a good chance the NRA will be more competitive with the addition of top talent.
“With us being fortunate to go forward with our rodeos at this point, we feel like we will probably see that happening,” Sorlie said. “Because it's going to be one of the only options to rodeo, not just in Montana but actually in several states.”
But more important than the rodeos themselves are the economic and social aspects for the communities that host each event.
“They bring the community together and they really look forward to it,” Sorlie said. “Not only do they have the economic impact, but that's the Fourth of July celebration, that's the one big event that they have in town that brings everybody to town and together, so it's just all important.”
Sorlie, a Billings resident and barrel racer, has worked for the Northern Rodeo Association for 25 years and has never experienced a greater challenge to rodeo than the COVID-19 pandemic. But for her, the silver lining is seeing everyone work toward solutions.
“You see people at their best when the times get tough,” she said. “They're working hard and it's awesome. It's the best part of my job.”
For a full, updated schedule of NRA rodeos visit NorthernRodeo.com.