Judge grants restraining order to keep Hammond cattle off some BLM land
A federal judge signed, on June 5, 2019, a temporary restraining order that will prevent Hammond Ranches, Inc., of Burns, Oregon, from grazing in two BLM-administered allotments for the next 28 days.
U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon determined that the BLM had not conducted the necessary studies and that the Hardie Allotment and Mud Creek Allotment would suffer “irreparable harm” if the Hammonds were to turn cattle onto them.
Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity and Wildearth Guardians filed at restraining order last month to prevent Hammond Ranches Inc., run by Dwight Hammond Jr. and son Steven Hammond from grazing their BLM-administered permit rangeland.
According to their grazing plan, the Hammonds had planned to move cattle to one or both of those allotments June 8, said Jerome Rosa with the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. Rosa said Simon is the husband of democratic Rep. Suzanne Bonamici who, on June 5, 2019, posted a press release reporting about a bill she sponsored that requires the federal government to pay for research and monitoring regarding the “climate crisis.”
The judge granted the temporary restraining order, which means the Hammonds are not allowed to use those allotments for the next 28 days, said Rosa. The judge ruled that if they were to go onto their allotments, they would cause irreparable harm to two protected species – sage grouse and redband trout, said Rosa.
A hearing regarding the preliminary injunction has been set for June 28, said Rosa.
Steven Hammond, said this has become much bigger than the Hammond family ranch.
“This is still an industry issue. Yes, the Hammonds lost yesterday, and it’s uncomfortable for us, but it’s bigger than that,” he said. Ranchers need to be aware that they are a minority, and could be the next target of an overzealous anti-grazing litigation organization, or the victim of a lackadaisical federal agency.
Hammond believes the local BLM staff could have conducted the federally-required Environmental Assessment and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) study, and their lack of doing so, provided a “wrapped and packaged gift” to the anti-grazing groups who filed suit to stop his cattle from grazing. Hammond fears that if the BLM doesn’t continue to work with grazers in a positive way, the agency and land it administers will not maintain its “multiple use” status, and will lose the benefits of grazing altogether.
Rosa points out that the Hammond allotments are extremely overgrown because the family’s grazing permit was not renewed for five years, which left the rangeland un-grazed. As a result, invasive grass including cheatgrass has moved into the allotments, he said. Rosa said the attorney representing the plaintiffs expressed concern over the fact that the BLM had worked with the Hammonds on a grazing plan that called for more cattle than normal to graze the allotments in question. The extra cattle would graze and/or trample the excess grass in hopes of giving native forage species the chance to grow again, and also to reduce fire danger.
The same attorney argued repeatedly that sage grouse are “thriving” in the tall grass, even without sage brush, which has been greatly reduced as the result of fire in recent years. “That was concerning to me. They were making the argument that this species was thriving in spite of the fact that there is little sage brush due to past fire. He said that over and over. That seemed to be his take-home message,” said Rosa.
Hammond also recalled the plaintiff’s attorney telling the judge that the BLM had not documented the conflicts with nesting sage grouse. “I don’t think there is any more conflict there than anywhere else,” he said, but he realizes that it was the BLM’s responsibility to research it.
“This land hasn’t been grazed for five years, providing sage grouse and their habitat a much-needed reprieve from the harmful impacts of cows,” said Judi Brawer, Wild Places program director at WildEarth Guardians, in a news release. “Starting grazing now will have serious ecological consequences that must be considered. Every other grazing permit is supposed to go through the environmental review process; Trump and his henchmen should not be allowed to constantly claim exceptions to that rule.”
Western Watersheds Project, a co-plaintiff, brags on its website of many cases where the group has used litigation to force ranchers off federal lands.
“Through vigorous litigation under the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and Federal Land Policy Management Act, WWP has successfully challenged public-lands grazing practices that threaten watersheds and endangered species such as salmon, steelhead and bull trout,” says their website.
The BLM’s attorney, Stephen J. Odell, conspicuously, did not bring up the fire risk, Rosa said. “It was surprising and disappointing to me that he never mentioned that one lightning strike in that area with that amount of invasive grasses and dried forage, and that would go up like a box of matches. Every sage grouse, every egg, every chick will be fried.” Odell did argue the fact that studies have shown that grazing actually benefits sage grouse. “But the plaintiff’s expert, a Range Management PhD, countered with studies showing the opposite.”
Rosa believes that without grazing on those allotments, and if fire is started, the overload of invasive grass will eventually render the land sterile due to the high temperature of the fire. “The only thing that will come back is cheat grass and medusa head.”
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 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 Western Watersheds spokesman did not return a call requesting an interview.