Undue political influence on grazing decisions in eastern Oregon.

Western Watersheds Project (the organization that I am the Executive Director of), WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity are fighting the reinstatement of grazing on four allotments in eastern Oregon that are permitted to Hammond Ranches. In part, we argue that the Hammonds don’t have a great track record and are thus undeserving of a public lands grazing permit. The Hammonds have been the focus of a long list of allegations of legal violations spanning several decades, and have been accused of misdeeds ranging from death threats to livestock trespass to setting illegal fires on public lands, sometimes during county-wide burn bans.

The Hammonds had  engaged in harassment and abusive behaviors directed toward federal managers of the neighboring Malheur National Wildlife Refuge over boundary fences and the trailing of Hammond livestock across the Refuge. In letters to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge directors obtained by the Washington Post, Hammond called employees “gestapo” and threatened that if he did not get unfettered access to grazing lands, “the problem will be greatly amplified.” In another, he said he’d “pack a shotgun in his saddle” as a way to enforce his position. Trespassing cattle were a common occurrence on the Wildlife Refuge, and the Hammonds sparked a conflict with Refuge managers by cutting fences in 1994 and then blocking the site with heavy machinery to impede the repair of the fence, then dropping the scraper bucket to threaten towing operations, narrowly missing a special agent. The Hammonds were arrested on two felony counts.

Dwight and Steve Hammond ultimately were found guilty of arson for the 2001 and 2006 fires by a jury of their peers, and sentenced by Judge Michael Hogan to three and twelve months in prison, respectively, and in a separate agreement committed to pay $400,000 in restitution to the federal government.

But the two ranchers had been charged under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (signed into laws in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing), which holdsWhoever maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy, by means of fire or an explosive, any building, vehicle, or other real or personal property used in interstate or foreign commerce or in any activity affecting interstate or foreign commerce shall be imprisoned for not less than 5 years and not more than 20 years, fined under this title, or both.” Because Judge Hogan’s sentence was less than the mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years in prison for such crimes, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals required 5-year sentences for each arsonist. The Department of Justice appealed to enforce the mandatory minimum sentences, and the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, imposing 5-year prison sentences for each rancher, to be resumed in January 2016. The Hammonds return to prison kicked off a rally in Burns, Oregon,  after which Ammon Bundy and his ragtag band of armed extremists took over the closed federal buildings at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, citing the imprisonment of Dwight and Steve Hammond to justify their actions, and demanding the prisoners’ release. While the Hammonds never endorsed the armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by the Bundy extremists, their actions fit within the broader context of public land extremism by ranchers seeking to circumvent and undermine the federal laws and regulations that protect our public lands.

In a related legal action, the BLM denied the Hammonds their application to renew their grazing permit in February of 2014, stating that “Hammond Ranches, Inc. and its affiliates have demonstrated an unacceptable record of performance”, and outlined multiple counts of violations of federal regulations and the terms of their grazing permit. Given the numerous and egregious violations of the terms and conditions of renting public lands for livestock grazing, there is no logical way for the Hammonds to show the “satisfactory record of performance” necessary under federal regulations to have their grazing leases reinstated. The BLM continued to defend its decision to block the Hammonds permit in the Interior Board of Land Appeals, arguing vigorously about the regulatory circumstances that allowed them to remove the permit. 

[Interestingly, even as the Hammonds went to prison for arson on federal land and had the BLM revoke their grazing permit, Hammond Ranches, Inc. received more than $587,000 in subsidies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture between 2014 and the present. Even with their cattle denied access to public lands, Hammond Ranches, Incorporated seems to be making out like bandits at the expense of the American taxpayers.]

With the arrival of the Trump administration, the Hammonds seem to have friends in high places. Billionaire Forrest Lucas and his nonprofit advocacy group Protect the Harvest organized a campaign to get presidential clemency for the Hammonds. Lucas had reason to expect to have some inside influence having donated more than $100,000 to the various campaigns of Vice President Mike Pence. The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association also lobbied Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for a pardon for the Hammonds, and in response Zinke said “he would give his blessing to the president.” When President Trump granted the pardon in July 2018 and  the arsonists were released from prison, Lucas had them flown back to Oregon on his private jet.

In the wake of the presidential pardon, attention turned back to the grazing permits. Karen Budd-Falen represented the Harney County Stockgrowers Association and filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Hammonds seeking reinstatement of their grazing permit.  (Budd-Falen has been appointed to become the Deputy Solicitor for Fish and Wildlife within the Department of the Interior, in charge of reviewing Endangered Species Act decisions.) The legal battle over the permits was continuing apace in the administrative hearings department of the Department of Interior, with a ruling on the merits of the case pending any day.

But proper process apparently wasn’t good enough for these criminals. Instead, then Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke took up the issues of Hammonds’ grazing permits in the midst of the government shutdown, on the day after Christmas in 2018. Zinke seized control of the appeal from the Interior Board of Land Appeals, and took it upon himself to decide this complex legal matter by ordering the BLM to renew the Hammond Ranches a new grazing permit for five years. A month later, after returning the work, the Burns BLM did what it was told and gave the Hammonds a grazing permit. Their livestock were turned out earlier this spring. 

In addition to the improprieties and legal shenanigans, there are real effects to the landscape from letting grazing occur now. Since their grazing permit was revoked in 2014, the Hammond grazing leases have been rested from livestock grazing. Some started to recover, restoring key sage-grouse habitats. Other lands, damaged by inappropriate livestock grazing and fires, have been overtaken by an invasive weed called cheatgrass, which destroys their habitat value for native wildlife and radically amplifies the likelihood of future range fires. Without a proper and full environmental review of these impacts, and without public participation in the matter, the regulations are being thwarted again. The laws and regulations that protect our public lands and wildlife already are too permissive when it comes to commercial livestock operations on the federal public lands. The current standards are so low that overgrazing and severe damage to public lands and waterways can (and commonly does) occur without triggering remedial action. Federal agencies need to step up their efforts to require compliance with these standards, and at the same time Congress should raise the bar to require livestock grazing on public lands to adhere to standards that fully protect streamside vegetation, fragile soils, sage-grouse habitats, and the viability and abundance of all species of native plants and wildlife.

In the meantime, when livestock corporations violate federal regulations so badly that their grazing leases are revoked, federal agencies bear the responsibility of ensuring that they never get these privileges back.



  1. idaursine Avatar

    This letter is coauthored by a Democrat from Minnesota, Collin Peterson.

    Probably the only thing a Democrat would ever support Donald Trump on, killing wolves! On that, the majority of both parties seem to agree.

    If there are protections in place for ranchers in the Eastern part of Oregon, why do they need a delisting?

  2. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    With respect to grazing public lands, undue political influence has been around at least as long as the existence of the BLM. Both the Taylor Grazing Act and Public Rangelands Improvement Act (1978) are imperfect documents, designed by an imperfect congress for imperfect treatment of public lands. It is even more unfortunate that many congress people are not content with just authoring imperfect legislation but they go out of their way to make a name for themselves by favoring those who have abused the law/regulations.

    The U.S. has had around 75 years of what was supposed to be better, more conscientious public lands management but most of the habitats that were kept in “public trust” have only deteriorated. Oligarchy and economic self interest pretty much rule the day. Reminds me of ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ staring Jimmy Stuart. If government ‘servants’ don’t serve the oligarchs then they pay a price.

    I of course advocate a complete moratorium on grazing public lands. It will happen sooner or later. If people don’t come to their ecological senses sooner, then it will happen later-probably from wasting disease or something similar.


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Ralph Maughan