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Donald Trump Jr. visits Billings

Congressman Greg Gianforte speaks at the Montana Republican Party's Platform Convention at Billings Hotel and Convention Center in Billings on Friday, June 22, 2018.

Montana’s lone U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte on Wednesday praised fellow Republican President Donald Trump for pardoning two Oregon ranchers convicted of arson, whose 2016 imprisonment under terrorism laws triggered an armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge for more than a month.

Calling federal prosecutors “overzealous” and the evidence “conflicting,” Trump on Tuesday granted clemency to Dwight Lincoln Hammond Jr., 76, and his son, Steven Hammond, 46. The Hammonds’ ranch abuts the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, and they were convicted of setting fires that burned from private property onto federal ground in 2001 and 2006. The convictions came under a terrorism law passed following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1996, which included a five-year minimum sentence for arson to federal property – a penalty critics have called overly harsh.

The Hammonds’ pardons were encouraged by Oregon livestock groups and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, according to media reports.

Gianforte applauded the decision Wednesday.

“President Trump’s decision to pardon Dwight and Steven Hammond is a win for property rights and our way of life. Overzealous bureaucrats from the Obama administration stretched the long arm of the federal government and unjustly targeted the Hammonds,” Gianforte said in a statement.

“I am grateful for President Trump’s actions and that the Hammonds are returning home to their family and ranch. I will continue working with President Trump to protect our Montana way of life from federal overreach so that miscarriages of justice, like what the Hammonds faced, do not happen again,” the statement says.

The Hammonds contended that they set the fires in one case to control invasive species and in another as back fires to protect their property from area wildfires.

Prosecutors argued that one fire was set not to control invasive species as the Hammonds claimed, but to cover up poaching of deer. They alleged that firefighters were put in danger, some of whom were airlifted out of harm’s way, according to court documents.

The district court judge declined to impose the minimum sentence on the Hammonds, saying it was disproportionate to the crimes. Dwight Hammond received a three-month sentence and Steven Hammond received a year in prison, which they served and were released.

Prosecutors appealed seeking the mandatory minimum. An appeals court agreed and ordered them back to prison to serve out the sentence in 2016.

The case drew the ire of property rights groups and some opponents of federal ownership of land, who cited it as an example of government overreach in the West. It came to the attention of the Bundy family and its patriarch Cliven Bundy in Nevada, who in 2014 engaged in an armed confrontation with federal law enforcement over their grazing of cattle on BLM land without a permit.

In response, Ammon and Ryan Bundy and their supporters staged an armed takeover of the wildlife refuge that lasted 41 days. One of the occupiers, Robert LaVoy Finicum, was shot and killed by law enforcement who said he reached for a handgun during a confrontation at a roadblock.

The Bundys and five others were later acquitted of charges and were among those praising the pardon Tuesday.

Gianforte said in an interview Wednesday that his interest centered on defending private property rights, and cautioned against linking the Hammonds’ case directly with the occupation.

“The Hammonds had nothing to do with the occupation, they did not support the takeover,” he said. “They felt it was wrong, and the pardon of the Hammonds has nothing to do with the occupation. This has to do with farmers and ranchers being treated fairly and respecting individual property rights.”

When asked if the pardon could encourage other anti-government behavior, Gianforte reiterated his stance that the legal case and occupation are independent issues.

“This pardon has nothing to do with the occupation. This has to do with a rancher setting a controlled burn to manage his property, and it burned onto public land a little bit, which it should not have done, he should have controlled it, and he was prosecuted as a terrorist and locked up for five years. This was unjust treatment. The Trump pardon fixes that injustice,” he said.

Gianforte is running for re-election against Democrat Kathleen Williams, who was traveling Wednesday and could not be reached. Her campaign issued a statement critical of Gianforte in response to a request for comment.

"It's disappointing that Representative Gianforte is so quick to stand with those who resort to threats of violence instead of working with ranchers, public lands managers, and law enforcement officers to solve tough public lands issues," Williams’ statement says. "For years, I've worked to bring ranchers and public lands advocates together to solve problems and protect Montana's outdoor heritage, and I'll continue to do so as Montana's Congresswoman."

Lee Newspapers' statehouse reporter Holly Michels contributed to this story.

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