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Gianforte’s FWP commission picks feature industry executives

Elk graze on the hillsides north of Missoula. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Gianforte released the names of three rich businessmen he wants serving on the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission for the next four years.

On Wednesday, the Gianforte administration announced that KC Walsh, Pat Tabor and Brian Cebull would fill the three empty seats on the five-member commission, if the Montana Senate confirms them. Patrick Byorth of Bozeman and Andrew McKean of Glasgow have two more years in their terms.

The FWP commission is a body that is supposed to represent and consider the interests of sportsmen when the agency proposes changes to seasons or programs. It also approves FWP acquisition of conservation easements or land.

According to Montana policy, the appointments are to be made solely for the wise management of the fish and wildlife of the state without regard to political affiliation. Commissioners are supposed to live in the districts they represent.

All three candidates are sportsmen. But your average Montanan they’re not. And all three donated to Gianforte’s campaigns.

Cebull has donated more than $13,000 to Gianforte’s campaigns between 2017 and 2020, according to contribution records on followthemoney.org.

KC Walsh donated $7,060 between 2017 and 2019. Tabor donated $710 to Gianforte, and his wife, Joanne, donated $540 in June 2020.

The Montana Wildlife Federation is taking a wait-and-see attitude.

“We’re confident that once they hear from Montana’s hunters and anglers, they’ll be ready to work for equal sporting opportunity for everyone,” said MWF spokesman Nick Gevock. “Commissioners hear from hunters and anglers on an almost daily basis. So they’ll understand quickly how much Montanans value their public fish and wildlife resources.”

Former FWP commission chair Dan Vermillion isn’t familiar with the nominees, except for Walsh, so he couldn’t speak to their qualifications. But based on what the Legislature does, it might not matter if they have good intentions or not.

“They’re going to have some challenges navigating some of the bills that are coming out of the Legislature. And one of the bigger challenges is going to be retaining commission authority, because it seems like this Legislature may be somewhat intend on stripping that authority,” Vermillion said.

Pat Tabor of Bigfork will replace Tim Aldrich in District 1.

Tabor runs Swan Mountain Outfitters, which has had the concession for trail rides in Glacier National Park and runs a variety of other trips, including winter snowmobiling and hunts in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. A 2018 Forbes article said the business brought in about $2.5 million a year.

But in 2005, Tabor had the money to give the business a good start, because he had been working more than 25 years as a top accountant at H&R Block in San Diego. Since then, he’s made his money off the scenery and wildlife – the public trust – of Montana.

He has served on the Montana Board of Outfitters and on the board and as president of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, which has occasionally drawn the anger of resident sportsmen for supporting policies that “privatize Montana’s wildlife.”

An outfitter can earn several thousand dollars for one elk hunt, so some make deals with landowners to lock up a lot of private land and some public land too.

“Outfitting, fishing gear industries and the oil and gas industry will be well represented on the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission. What about wildlife and regular sportsmen? This is sad,” said Dillon hunter Raymond Gross.

KC Walsh, president of Simms Fishing Products in Bozeman, will replace Richard Stuker in District 3, which is encompasses north-central Montana. Although Bozeman isn’t in north-central Montana, Walsh is reported to own a ranch on the North Fork of the Musselshell River.

Walsh sits on the board of Montana Trout Unlimited but also on the board of the Bozeman-based Property and Environment Research Center, which emphasizes property rights and capitalism when it comes to conservation. But he is on the record opposing the Tintina copper mine above the Smith River.

Walsh is also on the committee charged with selecting the FWP director.

“I know KC has strong values as far as the importance of recreation to Montanans, the importance of recreation to our economy,” Vermillion said. “Using private success for public good, that’s something that can be important.”

Brian Cebull of Billings will replace long-time commissioner Shane Colton in District 5.

Cebull graduated from Stanford in 1993 and worked as an engineer at a trio of oil and gas companies. In 2008, he founded Nance Resources, Inc., an oil and gas exploration and production company. In 2011, he also headed up GTUIT, a company operating out of Arnegard, N.D., that specializes in capturing and processing flare gas, such as methane, from fracking wells.

As such, Cebull is a board member and former president of the Montana Petroleum Association and regional representative of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

In addition to his career in the oil and gas industry, Cebull is an avid trophy hunter, shelling out big money for trips to Tanzania to hunt Cape buffalo and Alaska’s Brooks Range to hunt moose. He is a former president and sits on the board of the Montana chapter of Safari Club International, a Washington, D.C.,-based hunting organization.

The FWP commission is required to have one commissioner who is experienced in the breeding and management of livestock. Until this year, that was lifelong cattleman Richard Stuker of Chinook. This year, it appears Cebull would hold that chair.

“It’s interesting – it’s definitely a different kind of agricultural operation,” Vermillion said.

In 2005, Cebull started buying property in Carbon County that he dubbed the Grove Creek Ranch and transferred it to a company he created called Ohana Properties. The Gianforte press release says Cebull owns 20,000 acres, but a parcel search in Montana Cadastral shows Cebull has fee title to less than 3,000 acres, much of it divided into 20-acre parcels and scattered among sections of Bureau of Land Management property along Grove Creek and Meeteetse Trail roads.

In a 2013 disclosure to Congress, Cebull mentioned he has more than 15,000 acres of BLM grazing leases, which would bring the land he manages up to about 20,000 acres.

What concerns some is Cebull’s opposition to the Endangered Species Act and species that are affected by it, particularly sage grouse and grizzly bears.

In 2013, as the sage grouse was poised for listing, Cebull testified against the Endangered Species Act as part of a panel organized by Sen. Steve Daines, saying he didn’t want the listings to stop landowners from doing what they want.  

“Hunting of animals creates a perceived value and respect of that animal in the public’s eyes. The listing of the sage grouse will remove it from the hunting rolls and diminish its value, which is exactly the opposite of the listing,” Cebull testified

A sage grouse listing would have also limited where oil and gas companies could drill on public land.

Also on the panel were Dave Galt, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association; Phillips County Commissioner Lesley Robinson; Channis Whiteman, Crow tribal member and equipment operator for Cloud Peak Energy; Montana Farm Bureau Federation spokesman Matt Knox; and Kerry White, executive director of Citizens for Balanced Use.

Since then, Gov. Steve Bullock’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council has made recommendations on how to better manage grizzly bears. In addition, several groups of the Conflict Reduction Consortium just received a federal grant to study how best to reduce landowner-grizzly conflict using nonlethal means.

For now, the grizzly remains protected, so the commission will have little input on that. It remains to be seen how much authority retains on other issues.

“If you look at some of these bills, my sense is it won’t be the commission that turns the conversation of wildlife ownership back to private hands – that’s going to be more of a Legislative push,” Vermillion said. “To me, it’s really dependent on who the (FWP) director is. If it’s somebody that reflects the more challenging aspect of the Republican party at the Legislature, there could be a lot of change.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.