Tim Sheehy, the Republican establishment’s favored candidate to take on Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), is emphasizing his experience as a rancher to build his credibility in Montana.
At first glance, Sheehy seems to have a sterling record: In 2021, a Montana nonprofit honored his Little Belt Ranch, a 20,000-acre spread in central Montana, with a “conservation award.”
“We do not own the land, we are just the current stewards of it,” Sheehy said in a press release announcing the award. “Someone else will walk the ranch in 1,000 years, and they will have no idea who I am. It’s important to me that we leave it better than we found it.”
But Sheehy and his partners’ reputation may be a little spottier than he’d like to present. In fact, they failed to meet a bare minimum standard for every Montana rancher and farmer—one that is crucial to supporting the state’s agriculture and conservation programs.
Each year, anyone who has livestock in the state—even “one horse or a few chickens,” per state guidance—is required to report the number of their animals to the Montana Department of Revenue. They then have to pay a so-called “per capita fee” for every animal, ranging from five cents per chicken to $2.29 per head of cattle, which the government uses to fund a variety of programs benefiting livestock owners and the public.
Recently, the liberal group American Bridge filed an open records request with the Department of Revenue, asking how many animals Sheehy’s ranch reported to the government since they purchased the property in 2019.
A department official replied that Sheehy, his business partners, and Little Belt Cattle Company had never reported any livestock with the government, according to a copy of the email shared with The Daily Beast.
Reached for comment, a spokesperson for Sheehy said that “not filing the report was an oversight, which is being fixed.”
Insisting that Little Belt Cattle “raises, finishes, and processes premium beef 100% in Montana,” the spokesperson said “Democrat operatives are working overtime to try and dig-up dirt and make ridiculous claims with the hope of smearing Tim Sheehy, a successful businessman and decorated combat veteran.”
“This past weekend, while Tim enjoyed a delicious burger made from beef raised at the ranch, he thought about all the liberal tears that will be shed as they come to terms with the fact that he will win this race,” the spokesperson continued.
The Sheehy spokesperson did not address questions asking how much Little Belt Cattle owes to the state government, or any information about the livestock population on the property. The Montana Department of Revenue did not respond to a request for comment.
Even if unintentional, the non-payments have saved Sheehy’s ranch—at least until The Daily Beast raised the issue—from a tax bill likely totaling tens of thousands of dollars. Livestock owners who have not paid their per capita fees can be subject to additional late fees as well as interest on those fees.
According to a recent HuffPost article, Sheehy’s ranch is home to some 2,000 cattle; in interviews, he and his partners have said they also have goats, chicken, and horses.
If the cattle estimate is accurate, Little Belt would owe roughly $4,500 in per capita fees based on the 2023 rates. It’s unclear how many more animals they have, or how many animals the ranch has housed over the years, but the required fee per horse now is $5.85 and $0.54 per goat.
Along with his wife and brother, Sheehy purchased the land that constitutes the ranch in 2019. With livestock reports due in February of each year, and livestock owners receiving bills in May, it’s likely that Sheehy has not paid required fees for four years, from 2020 to 2023.
In 2014, per capita fees generated some $4.4 million in revenue for the Montana government, which puts the funds toward key programs that ranchers, farmers, and other residents of the state rely on.
“Everyone benefits from programs funded by per capita fees,” reads the state Department of Revenue website. “Livestock producers benefit from programs to monitor animal health, monitor and restrict livestock imports, track animal movements, prevent and investigate livestock theft, and manage predators,” the guidance reads. “The general public benefits from programs that prevent the spread of animal diseases to humans.”
For a Montanan who has prided himself on responsible ranching, environmental stewardship, and fiscal discipline, Sheehy’s failure to pay the required fees may undercut the image he is cultivating in the Montana Senate race.
A retired Navy SEAL who moved to the state in 2013, Sheehy is the preferred recruit of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his campaign chief, Sen. Steve Daines, also of Montana. Defeating Tester is key to Republicans’ plans to capture the Senate majority, and Sheehy is considered to be a serious contender.
In a rural state where ranching and farming are cultural and economic touchstones, the way candidates position themselves in relation to these industries are watched closely by voters and often help define elections.
In 2018, for instance, Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-MT) won the GOP nomination to challenge Tester while boasting he was the only real “rancher” in the primary field. He constantly talked up his work on a ranch he owned in Glendive, Montana, on the stump and in ads, where he posed in farm workwear alongside cows.
But a Talking Points Memo report revealed that Rosendale actually leased out his ranch for others to work the land and raise their cattle. Rosendale did not report ownership of any livestock to the Montana Department of Revenue between 2011 and 2018.
Notably, Tester is one of two active farmers in the U.S. Senate. He works a patch of land in Big Sandy, in the north-central part of the state, that was homesteaded by his grandparents. In his campaign messaging, he frequently invokes his farming background, and often tweets photos of himself and his wife on the farm, sometimes on a tractor or with a slaughtered cow.
In 2018, Democrats highlighted Rosendale’s ranching boasts to undercut his Montana cred, which became a key theme of the race. Ultimately, he lost to Tester by a margin of 3.5 percentage points.
According to Politico, Rosendale is planning another challenge to Tester, telling colleagues that he intends to run again. It sets up a potentially contentious primary clash between Sheehy—who is backed by leading conservatives as well as by GOP leadership—and Rosendale, who is a favorite of hard-right conservatives and is supported by the deep-pocketed Club For Growth, an influential outside group.
After serving in the military, Sheehy found business success in the tech industry. He founded a Montana aviation company specializing in aerial firefighting. And the proceeds from those ventures enabled him to purchase the land that became the ranch, alongside a fellow veteran, Greg Putnam.
In an interview with a Montana-based food magazine, Sheehy spoke with commitment about his conservation-minded goals.
“We realized we wanted to make our local food supply chain more resilient,” he said. “Little Belt Cattle Co. came from a labor of love for conservation and was born from the desire to be of service.”