By Maxine Bernstein | Jul 16, 2019
The entrance to the Hammond Ranch. July 2018 (Beth Nakamura)
A federal judge will allow Hammond Ranches Inc. to graze its cattle on parts of a federal allotment called Hardie Summer this season but must limit its use as three environmental advocacy groups challenge the Harney County ranchers’ federal grazing permit in court.
The judge approved an alternative grazing plan that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management had proposed at last month’s hearing. The three environmental groups suing the federal land agency rejected the alternative at the start of the hearing and urged a halt to any cattle grazing by the Harney County ranchers on federal land.
Simon ordered no grazing on federal land called the Mud Creek allotment but allowed for cattle to “quickly and methodically trail through’’ that parcel to get to the federal Hardie Summer allotment, where cattle can graze at a 30 percent utilization standard, lower than the standard allowed in the ranchers’ permit, on four of five pastures. No further grazing is allowed beyond those restrictions, the judge said.
The Hardie Summer allotment is about 9,800 acres, of which approximately 39 percent is owned by the Hammonds, and 61 percent, or 6,000 acres, is publicly owned. The allotment is subdivided into five pastures on which the cattle rotate during grazing.
The restrictions will reduce harm to sage grouse by eliminating nearly all grazing on the Mud Creek allotment and significantly reducing grazing on the Hardie Summer allotment, and will lessen the harms to redband trout by eliminating grazing on a portion of what’s called Little Fir Creek, Simon wrote in his ruling.
The judge issued the restrictions amid a finding that the environmental groups had shown a likelihood of succeeding in proving that former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s order for the government to reissue a 10-year grazing permit to the Hammonds this year “was arbitrary and capricious’’ and unlawful.
Maxine Bernstein. The Hammond Ranches Inc. property abuts the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, with an expansive view of the fault-block Steens Mountain and surrounding wilderness. (Maxine Bernstein|Staff)
The environmental advocacy groups Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity and Wildearth Guardians sued the Interior secretary and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management after the government in January renewed a 10-year grazing permit for Hammond Ranches.
The groups argued that Zinke violated federal regulations because the government failed to consider the Hammonds’ unsatisfactory record or do proper environmental reviews.
The renewal of the Hammonds’ 2014 grazing permit followed President Donald Trump’s pardon of the Hammonds last summer. Dwight Hammond Jr. and his youngest son, Steven Hammond, convicted of arson, were serving out five-year mandatory minimum sentences for setting fire to public land where they had grazing rights.
“Zinke did not: (1) find that the Hammonds were in compliance with the terms of the permit and the governing rules and regulations; (2) explain why, if he now found that the Hammonds were in compliance, his finding was different than BLM’s 2014 finding; (3) explain how, if the Presidential pardons were the basis of any new finding of compliance, they formed the basis of that finding; (4) address BLM’s 2014 findings relating to conduct other than the conduct that supported the criminal convictions; or (5) explain how or why the Permit could issue if he was not finding that Hammonds were in compliance,’’ Simon wrote.
The judge also addressed written statements he received from Harney County officials, including the sheriff and a county commissioner, who came to the Hammonds’ defense and urged the court to allow them to continue grazing, saying they didn’t want more national attention on their southeastern Oregon high desert community.
Some in Harney County characterized the lawsuit by the Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity and Wildearth Guardians as more unwanted attention from outside agitators, especially given that it involves the Hammonds – whose case inspired the 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
“Harney County requests that the grazing be allowed to continue so that the community can ‘move on.’ Although Harney County’s desire to move on from a difficult period is understandable…courts have long held that there is a strong public interest in having the government comply with governing statutes and regulations,’’ Simon wrote. “Additionally, if the community is sensitive to federal management of public lands, ensuring that the federal government comply with the governing statutes and regulations is of particular public importance.''
Simon described the preliminary injunction as limited in scope and duration, “based on likely irreparable harm that has been shown particularly because BLM did not perform the required environmental assessment,'' before renewing the Hammonds’ permit.