BC-MT--Top 10-Montana,ADVISORY, MT

It's time for members of The Associated Press to vote on the top Montana stories of 2012.

The AP's suggestions follow in random order, followed by space for other suggestions. We're asking you to pick the top 10 stories, with the first choice being No. 1, the second No. 2 and so on.

AP members may vote by faxing ballots to 406-442-5162 or by e-mail to apmontana (at)ap.org. Please include your name and other identifying information on your ballot. One ballot per news organization.

Ballots must be received by the end of business on Monday, Dec. 17.

A story will move on the wire Friday, Dec. 21, for use Dec. 26 and anytime thereafter.

— The Montana Senate race battle between incumbent Jon Tester and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg dominates headlines as both sides campaign ferociously, backed by a historic influx of campaign cash.

— Gov. Brian Schweitzer leaves office at year's end after two terms, maintaining high approval ratings with his trademark showmanship and enthusiastic approach to the job.

—Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock defeats former Congressman Rick Hill in the race to succeed Schweitzer.

— Republicans falter in the biggest electoral prizes, despite GOP optimism that Obama backlash would help them take back a U.S. Senate seat and win the governor's office. Democrats instead win the Senate race and four of five statewide Land Board seats, while Republicans maintain control of the Legislature.

— "Dark money" punctuates an election cycle dominated by outside spending. One legal challenge led to a temporary suspension of the state's campaign contribution limits and opened the door for a $500,000 donation to Republican Rick Hill. Earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed the state's century-old ban on some corporate politicking. American Tradition Partnership later came under fire after critics argued that bank records released under court order demonstrated illegal coordination with candidates, and voters endorsed a ballot measure symbolically opposing corporate money in politics.

— The controversy over the handling of rape cases at the University of Montana and in Missoula leads to high-profile departures from the administration and the school's football team, criminal proceedings against a former quarterback, and prompts federal investigations into the matter.

— A man wanted on charges of detonating pipe bombs in Virginia leads Montana police on a highway chase in November during which he threw several bombs at his pursuers before he was captured.

— A Bozeman photographer is arrested in October for kidnapping and sexually assaulting an 11-year-old Wyoming girl after police said he lured her to his car by saying he needed help finding a missing puppy.

— Voters endorse the Legislature's stringent new medical marijuana rules and the Montana Supreme Court deals a setback to a legal challenge of those rules. Meanwhile, a judge rules that federal drug laws trump the state's medical marijuana law, prompting several indicted medical pot operators to make plea deals except for Helena grower Chris Williams, who was convicted on eight charges and faces 80 years in prison.

— Federal regulators approve new rules aimed at forcing industrial plants to cut pollutants blamed for making hazy skies over national parks and wilderness areas. Shortly later, PPL Montana announces blames EPA rules as part of the reason for its plans to shutter a coal-fired power plant near Billings.

— Two lawsuits alleging decades of clergy sexual abuse in missions, schools and homes in western Montana going back to the 1940s are combined and the parties head toward settlement talks. The plaintiffs, many of them Native Americans, say the diocese knew or should have known about the abuse, but covered it up instead of stopping it.

— Montana officials reject parole for an infamous 1980s "mountain man" Don Nichols who abducted a world-class athlete in 1984 to keep as a wife for his son, who shot her during a rescue attempt and then left her to die. The son, Dan Nichols, went on the run from the law again before he was caught and charged with charges stemming from his employment with a statewide medical marijuana operation.

— Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf is sentenced for breaking into a Great Falls house and illegally possessing painkillers.

— Federal Judge Richard Cebull announces plans to step down as chief federal judge and to take on a reduced caseload after critics hammer him for forwarding a racist joke involving President Barack Obama.

— The Montana Parole Board recommends the governor deny clemency for Canadian Ronald A. Smith, on death row for killing two Blackfeet cousins I the early 1980s.

— The Forest Service reverses a decision to reject a permit renewal for a 58-year-old Jesus statue at a northwest Montana ski resort, leading to a legal challenge a group of atheists and agnostics who argue the religious relic does not belong on public land.

— A hitchhiker from West Virginia pleads guilty in October to falsely claiming to be the victim of a drive-by shooting in rural Montana, a claim that originally led to another man being jailed for an offense he did not commit.

— Fire season starts early and lasts into the fall, destroying 463 homes and other structures and burning more than 1.3 million across the state. The Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation is hit particularly hard and tribal members are left short on resources and struggling to recover after flames devoured much of their arid land.

— Two Colorado men are charged in the kidnapping and murder of Sidney High School teacher Sherry Arnold, whose disappearance during a pre-dawn run sparked efforts to improve coordination among law enforcement agencies dealing with the Bakken oil boom.

— The Bakken oil patch along the Montana-North Dakota border brings new jobs to eastern Montana, but with housing in short supply, local communities feel the strain of rapid growth.

— State officials lift the quota on wolves across most of Montana and allow trapping of the predators for the first time in decades as part of a stepped-up effort to decrease the wolf population.

— Arch Coal, BNSF Railway and candy industry billionaire Forrest Mars, Jr. seek federal approval to build the long-stalled Tongue River Railroad into southeastern Montana's vast coal fields and ship the fuel west for export to Asia.

— A government-appointed scientific panel says even the smallest amount of asbestos mined from the Superfund town of Libby is enough to cause potential health problems, a finding that could have implications for asbestos cleanups nationwide.

— Three children from a Belgrade family who were missing for seven months are found on a sailboat off the coast of Florida, after their father and step-mother had taken the children from their mother in violation of court order.

— A private conservation group seeking to re-establish free roaming bison on an eastern Montana wildlife preserve buys a 150,000-acre cattle ranch east of Glasgow, more than doubling the amount of land under its control.

— Floyd "Creeky" Creekmore of Billings, who performs for the Shrine Circus, is named the world's oldest working clown at the age of 95 by the Guinness Book of World Records.

—"Three Cups of Tea" author Greg Mortenson agrees to pay nearly $1 million under a settlement with the Montana attorney general over allegations of mismanagement of his Bozeman-based charity, Central Asia Institute. Mortenson also agrees to step down as the charity's executive director and CAI expands its board as part of the settlement.

— The U.S. Supreme Court paves the way for disbursement of the $3.4 billion American Indian land royalty settlement forged by Elouise Cobell by declining to take up appeals of the deal.

— The "Piggyback Bandit" goes on a five-state spree of jumping on the backs of unsuspecting high-school athletes.

— The Supreme Court rules the PPL Montana, not the state, owns the riverbeds beneath 10 dams on three Montana rivers.

— A ranch for troubled children adopted from foreign countries comes under scrutiny when Russian politicians arrive at its gate, demanding to check on the children inside. It is later revealed that the state and the ranch's owner are in a licensing dispute.

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