Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, and WildEarth Guardians file suit to remove Hammond cattle from range

This photo shows the overgrowth of grass over 2 years ago on the Hammonds' private land that is unable to be grazed because it is "checkerboarded" with BLM-administered land. The forage is even more abundant today. The Hammonds' BLM grazing permit renewal was denied in 2014, and not renewed until this spring.Photo courtesy Earlyna Hammond |

Because the pastures have sat empty for five years, the forage on the Hammond permits is now dangerously overgrown, say neighbors.

“It is just like kindling waiting for a match,” said neighbor Erin Maupin in an earlier TSLN story. “There would be nothing stopping a 500,000 acre fire if it got going,” she said of forage that sat untouched for 5 years.

Dave Duquette, Protect the Harvest, agrees that there is a major fire hazard on the Hammonds’ BLM-administered range. “All heck will break loose if they have fire there.”

For the last five years, the family was also unable to utilize much of their private land, which is unfenced and “checkerboarded” with BLM-administered land.

“The road goes right up to our range, and it’s above a recreational area,” said Dwight Hammond. “Most people, if they understand fire a little bit, get nervous when they are wading through tremendous undergrowth. If a fire ever gets started here, it won’t go out until it gets ready. You aren’t going to put it out.”

Duquette said that the BLM renewed the Hammond family’s grazing permit this spring with the original number of Animal Units per Month, which had been systematically reduced over the past 50 years. The BLM indicated this was done in an effort to reduce the overgrowth of forage that had occurred in the five years that no cattle grazed the Hammond range.

“Some media outlets reported that the BLM was giving the Hammonds more AUMs, but all they did was give them their original AUM’s back,” said Duquette.

The concept of using grazing to mitigate fire risk is consistent with President Trump’s call to increase logging to reduce forest fires.

“All the west is in the same boat,” said Dwight. “If we take livestock off, unless horses are eating it into the ground, you can see how this fire thing has escalated into an impossible animal to fund or even deal with.”

A district court judge has denied three anti-grazing groups a temporary restraining order filed in an attempt to stop the Hammonds from grazing on their permit.

Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, and WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit and a temporary restraining order May 13 against the BLM, the BLM District Manager, Jeffrey Rose and David Bernhardt, the Secretary of the Interior. The lawsuit calls for them to “enjoin and vacate” the “11th hour decision” to renew the Hammonds’ grazing permit after five years of non-renewal. While the temporary restraining order was denied, the judge has not yet ruled on the lawsuit.

The BLM itself acknowledged, in a recent environmental assessment, that the ungrazed crested wheatgrass in the BLM-administered rangeland is a “standing biomass” creating substantial fire risk, and that a lack of grazing has “reduced the health and vigor of the stand.”

Burns, Oregon rancher Dwight Hammond, says the family’s cattle are already grazing the BLM-administered permit and the family has no plans of removing them. “But these judges can make some really weird decisions. If they told us to get our cattle off, I guess we’d have to,” he said. “Here we go again.”

The family is “in the dark,” he said, and as of May 14, had not heard anything official about the lawsuit.

The Hammond family’s grazing permit was not renewed in 2014, or for five subsequent years afterward. When the father and son were found guilty of arson and sentenced to federal prison, the BLM determined they did not have a satisfactory “record of performance,” citing, in several cases, actions the men were accused of but not found guilty of.

The Hammonds were pardoned by President Trump in 2018, and allowed to return home after serving more than half of their five year arson sentences for the approximately 140 acres of BLM land they burned in two separate occasions in 2001 and 2006.

Dwight was found guilty of burning one acre of BLM land, when a prescribed burn on private land to reduce overcrowding juniper, spilled over onto the adjoining federally administered land in 2001.

Dwight’s son Steven was found guilty of burning that same one acre, plus 139 more acres in 2006, when he lit a back burn to protect the family ranch headquarters when a series of lightning-lit fires was heading toward them. The backfire succeeded in protecting the home quarters.

The Hammond permits total over 26,000 acres, so the burned segment amounted to about one half of one percent of the total range the family has owns the grazing rights to.

The anti-grazing groups claim in the opening statement of their lawsuit that the two fires set by the Hammonds “resulted in the destruction of important habitat for greater sage-grouse and in the spread of…cheatgrass.”

A range specialist testified under oath that the condition of the rangeland actually improved following the fires.

The lawsuit goes on to say, “The four Hammond allotments were not grazed for the past five years, beginning in spring 2014. The allotments have begun to heal and recover.”

U.S. District Judge Michael Robert Hogan, who presided over the first case, said the Hammond-lit fires resulted in about $100 in damage.

Protect the Harvest’s Dave Duquette said the anti-grazing groups are not trying to protect the environment, but rather to stop grazing, at all costs. “The reasoning behind their lawsuit is total b.s.,” he said.

The Center for Biological Diversity, on its website, boasts about the founders’ success in halting grazing and logging on federal lands. “Tackling cattle-grazing abuses on the public lands where they lived, they leveraged protection for species like the southwestern willow flycatcher into orders to remove cows from hundreds of miles of vulnerable desert streams; with their campaigns to protect goshawks and owls, they shut down major timber operations throughout Arizona and New Mexico and brought an end to large-scale industrial logging in the heritage public lands of the arid Southwest.

“And that was just for starters,” brags the website.

The Western Watersheds Project reports in its mission statement that its primary focus is on “the negative impacts of livestock grazing on 250 million acres of western public lands.”

The lawsuit claims that the BLM violated the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA) by not completing an Environmental Assessment or an Environmental Impact Statement, required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

But Duquette says that NEPA is intended for “new projects” and should not even apply in this situation.

“The Taylor Grazing Act pre-dates NEPA. Grazing is not new. There should be no reason for it in this case, to do what we’ve known works and how it works for a couple of hundred years.”

NEPA itself says that the federal government should (among other things) consider alternatives, environmental impacts, and more with “every recommendation or report on proposals for legislation and other major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.”

Then-Secretary Zinke said, in January of 2019, when he ordered the renewal of the grazing permit, that it was President Trump’s intent, with his full pardoning of the men, to renew the remainder of the Hammond family’s 10-year grazing permit for the duration of the term (until 2024).

Duquette, who has seen the Hammond range, said the family is model land managers and should be used as an example for others to follow. “Steven took me around that ranch. You can’t tell what is their private land and what is BLM, they manage their property that well.”

And Duquette believes that the new Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt, will “do the right thing,” and ensure that the cattle remain on the BLM-administered land.

Bernhardt, a native Coloradoan, who, under President George W. Bush worked to open up Yellowstone National Park to recreational snowmobilers and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development, became a lobbyist for several fossil fuel interests during the Obama administration.

“He sees the global aspect of this situation,” said Duquette. “These people (anti-grazing groups) are going to have a hard time doing any of this and getting away with it, under his watch. He’s not a pushover.”