Judge rules against Hammonds
A federal judge approved a request for a preliminary injunction filed by anti-grazing groups focused on thwarting the Hammond family’s grazing on BLM-administered land.
Judge Michael Simon, the husband of democratic Representative Suzanne Bonamici, ruled in favor of the suit that Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity and Wildearth Guardians filed, calling for an end to grazing on two of the Hammonds four allotments.
The judge made a temporary ruling in June, that the Hammonds could not use their Hardie or Mud Creek Allotments. In the July 16 ruling, he determined that they could utilize 30 percent of the forage on the 6,000-acre Hardie Summer allotment, which only consists of 33 percent federal land, with the remaining 67 percent being “checkerboarded” with private land owned by Hammond Ranches. The private land is not fenced separately. The original grazing plan would have allowed the cattle to utilize 50 percent.
The Hammonds are still not allowed to graze their 8,200 Mud Creek allotment at all, but can briefly travel through it.
These are two of the four allotments utilized by the Hammond family. All of the allotments touch one another, said Oregon Cattlemen’s Association Jerome Rosa who recently visited the ranch. The allotments total about 45,000 acres, which includes private land intermingled with BLM-administered land, he said.
“The tough part about these allotments is, the ranchers pay for the use of these allotments in their base acres (privately owned land) so when they take away those allotments or restrict use of them, it takes away the value of the base acres.”
The anti-grazing groups argued that Hammond cattle would cause “irreparable harm” to the permit, mostly voicing concern for the sage grouse. The Hammonds’ permit had gone ungrazed for the past five years, and ironically, the BLM had increased grazing numbers on some of the allotments to help diminish overgrowth that poses fire danger.
Erik Molvar, the Executive Director for Western Watersheds Project said his organization believes that leaving the allotments ungrazed will help manage fire risk. He said overgrazing by livestock spreads cheatgrass, which increases the likelihood of fire.
“If you look at the places that haven’t had cattle for long periods of time, those are the areas with healthy native bunch grasses and lower fire risk,” he said.
Several studies have found no negative correlation between responsible grazing and sage grouse existence.
A Journal Of Wildlife Management Study, reported on the Sage Grouse Initiative website, said “The study found nesting success was similar among different grazing management systems, and rotational grazing, which keeps livestock off of designated areas to allow vegetation to recover, didn’t increase nest survival.”
Dave Duquette who represents Protect the Harvest said the Hammonds’ grazing numbers had been gradually cut over the past several years (prior to the non renewal of their permit five years ago) and the BLM had decided that the family should return to their original AUM numbers in order to deal with overgrown forage that has neighbors and the federal government concerned about fire.
Rosa said that in addition to his concern for the Hammond family who has already paid for the use of the forage on the allotments they are now unable to use, he worries this ruling will set a precedent. “In these areas they are making the claim that sage grouse can survive and expand their numbers in tall grass as long as it’s undisturbed by cattle.
“That doesn’t answer the question of wildfires,” he said. “One thing we absolutely know is that when we have heavy loads of these fine fuels on a year like this with such good precipitation, if lightning ignites a fire, it will become a catastrophic wildfire. Those fires burn large and really hot and if there are any sage grouse out there, we know that they will get burned out like everything else,” said Rosa.
More than two years ago, neighbors were voicing concern about the overgrowth of the Hammond allotments due to the non-renewal of their grazing permit.
Molvar said most federal lands permits are overgrazed by sheep and cattle, and he could not name a single location or instance in Western states of cattle and sheep grazing on federal lands that his group would support.
“There are ranching operations that are running bison that seem to be doing a pretty good job of it,” he said, adding that he believes the removal of 50 percent of the forage by livestock is excessive and damaging to the landscape.
“That only leaves the remaining 50 percent that has to sustain native herbivores, small mammals and rabbits and bugs.” He said, adding that “there is no level of livestock grazing that’s going to improve the health of federal lands.”
“Responsible grazing is so rarely seen on the public lands,” he said.
Molvar, a wildlife biologist, does not believe western lands are suitable for livestock grazing and he said the lawsuit against the Hammonds was intended to “demonstrate to all public lands ranchers that there are limits. You can’t just vandalize public lands and expect to keep on grazing cattle.”
The merits of the case, which the judge has yet to rule on, are whether or not then Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was within the law to in re-issue the Hammonds’ grazing permit and whether or not the BLM’s re-issuing of the permits at the local level was legal, said Molvar.
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.