Greg Gianforte

Greg Gianforte, Republican candidate for governor, discusses public land access issues earlier this month during an interview with The Billings Gazette.

JAMES WOODCOCK/Gazette Staff

Greg Gianforte apologized for and amended a February campaign statement on Thursday after Sanders County Commissioners asked the Republican candidate for governor “to correct the record.”

At a question-and-answer session in Malta, Gianforte described Sanders officials as upset about the state buying a private ranch and converting it to a wildlife management area. In fact, the commissioners supported the 2013 acquisition of the Full Curl Ranch.

“If we hadn’t written the letter of support, it probably wouldn’t have went through,” Commissioner Anthony Cox said, echoing the message shared by his colleagues in a letter to the campaign after reading Gianforte’s comments.

Gianforte emailed and called Sanders County commissioners to apologize after a reporter asked campaign officials to clarify the discrepancies.

“I apologize for mistakenly mentioning Sanders County rather than Mineral County and for any inconvenience that might have caused,” he wrote. “I have done over 1,000 individual meetings in the past year, and regret that I did not keep this detail straight.”

Cox said they “now consider the matter closed.” Yet the explanation raises new questions. Mineral County Commissioner Duane Simons said that the campaign trail comment did not match their situation either.

Gianforte and his campaign spokesman Aaron Flint declined interview requests made Thursday beyond sharing the email sent to Sanders County commissioners.

Sifting through the overlapping and conflicting statements must start with a story published last week by The Gazette, which reviewed audio clips of Gianforte at a February campaign event in Malta. The Montana Democratic Party released the partial recordings this month as part of continued attacks on the Republican’s record with public access issues. In that story, Gianforte said the FWP was at war with landowners and hunters. 

In one of the recordings, Gianforte was asked whether he supported the state buying private properties. He said he is “not a fan of additional land acquisitions.”

“I was up in Sanders County,” Gianforte said. “There was a piece of property up there, a private ranch going up for sale. The federal government was going to buy it. The county commissioners were concerned about that. Well, the state entered into it. They thought they were OK. The next thing they knew it was a wilderness study area, the access has been cut off and it’s off the tax rolls.”

He did not mention a specific project in the audio clip and later declined to name a specific project, saying he would have to check with the commissioners. He also declined to expound on apparent factual errors, such as suggesting that the county lost property tax revenue when in fact the state pays county taxes, and again said he would have to check with local officials.

“This information was conveyed to me by the commissioners in Sanders County,” he said.

In his Thursday email to commissioners, Gianforte, in part, blamed the reporter, who “assumed I was referencing the Full Curl WMA. I never mentioned a specific WMA. Also, I never said the commissioners were against the WMA, just that they were not pleased when the roads were closed to mechanized travel that had been permitted by the prior owner and hunting access was restricted.”

Gianforte’s comments seemed to largely fit the Full Curl sale in the absence of a confirmation from the candidate or his campaign staff about which acquisition he had referenced. Gianforte had been provided a transcript of the audio clips in advance of the meeting with the reporter last week to review.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bought the ranch in 2013 for $425,000 in conjunction with a donation from the landowner, converting the 438-acre site to a wildlife management area. The state pays property taxes on the land to the county and allows public access, including hunting, when about 300 bighorn sheep are not wintering on the property.

Now, Gianforte has said through his campaign that he was actually referencing an acquisition in Mineral County.

The only property that fits some of the details, and which Simons remembers discussing with Gianforte, was the sale of former Plum Creek timber land to The Nature Conservancy. The land was later sold to the state at the encouragement of county commissioners, who worried private owners would close traditional public access.

In 2010, the state land board approved purchasing the 41,000 acres in the Fish Creek area to make a state park and wildlife management area.

In hindsight, Simons said he personally might have supported the conservancy selling to a private owner because rules about access to the wildlife management area has blocked a local outfitter from guiding and forced locals to find new places to cut firewood for their stoves.

At the time of the area’s creation, many local residents had wanted more of the land to go into the management area rather than the state park, which had even more use restrictions, according to newspaper archives.

But details of that sale don’t match the Gianforte comments in February or last week, Simons said.

“No ranch was involved,” he said. “We’ve never had the federal government approach us about buying anything.”

The Fish Creek property was not a ranch. Nor had federal officials ever expressed interest in buying the land, although other neighboring Plum Creek properties that were divested were picked up by the U.S. Forest Service.

Gianforte and Flint declined requests for comment about the discrepancies.

It is not the first time questions have been raised when Gianforte has described conversations with others. When announcing his tax plan in April, Gianforte claimed that Facebook leaders had told him that the company would not locate in the state because of its business equipment tax. A spokesman for the company told the Associated Press that no company leaders had talked with Gianforte and that such a tax was not the reason Facebook passed on a Montana location. Facebook officials said the man Gianforte named, Dean Roberts, was a low-level employee who had no direct involvement in the decision. Roberts also denied telling Gianforte that such a tax was the reason for not selecting Montana.  

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