This story was updated at 4:50 p.m. EDT
Oregon father-and-son ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond may have won a formal pardon last year from President Trump, but the fate of the grazing permits they won back after their arson convictions remains up in the air.
A federal judge in Oregon late yesterday issued a temporary restraining order forbidding the Bureau of Land Management from allowing the Hammonds to use an 8,200-acre grazing allotment that environmental groups say contains important habitat for greater sage grouse. The order extends through the end of this month.
U.S. District Judge Michael Simon approved the order yesterday in a ruling from the bench; he issued a formal written order today. Simon’s order blocks BLM from allowing cattle to be moved to the Mud Creek Allotment as part of a seasonal rotation authorized in the permits restored to the Hammonds earlier this year by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Simon, an Obama appointee on the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, has scheduled a hearing for later this month on the merits of a separate and broader preliminary injunction request by environmental groups that would block the Hammonds from using other federal allotments covered by their permit.
The temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction request stem from a federal lawsuit filed last month by three environmental groups challenging Zinke’s "eleventh-hour decision" to renew the Hammonds’ grazing permits (E&E News PM, May 13).
Zinke’s move — one of his last acts before leaving office Jan. 2 — violated the Federal Land Policy and Management Act as well as Interior Department regulations because Trump’s pardons did not change earlier findings by BLM that the ranchers had an "unsatisfactory record of performance and multiple violations of the terms of their permits," the coalition argued in the complaint.
Simon agreed, writing in his order that Zinke "relied on the pardon granted by President Trump" in making his decision.
This, despite the fact that Zinke, in his order to BLM, "cited case law that holds that a pardon does not overturn a judgment of conviction, does not clear a person of the underlying conduct of conviction, constitutes a confession of guilt, and does not preclude a government agency from considering the underlying conduct in evaluating permit applications," Simon wrote.
"Nonetheless, [Zinke] relied on the pardons as ‘unique and important changed circumstances’ that apparently (although not explicitly) rendered [the Hammonds] either now in compliance with regulations and with a satisfactory performance record or somehow eligible for a permit despite not being in compliance and without a satisfactory performance record."
The groups — Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians — said they are pleased with the temporary restraining order.
"We’re happy to have stopped the harmful impacts of grazing to nesting and newly hatched sage grouse in the month of June, when chicks need the forbs for nutrition and tall grasses for hiding cover from predators," said Greta Anderson, Western Watersheds Project’s deputy director, in a statement. "Livestock grazing removes these key components of chick survival."
Interior does not comment publicly on matters pertaining to ongoing litigation.
But Justice Department attorneys representing Interior and BLM argued in a May 28 motion opposing the temporary restraining order that the environmental groups had failed to prove they would "suffer an irreparable injury" without it. DOJ further criticized the coalition for filing the lawsuit May 13, more than four months after Zinke restored the Hammonds’ grazing permits.
DOJ’s motion states the Hammonds transferred cattle to one of the four grazing allotments at issue on April 1, "some six weeks before Plaintiffs filed their motion."
What’s more, the sage grouse habitat "overall was rated as marginal" by BLM "as a result of the lack of sagebrush cover and continuity due to recent fires and juniper encroachment, and the presence of invasive annual grasses," the motion says.
Thus, DOJ argued, the court should deny the temporary restraining order request, and "allow the grazing strategy that is already being implemented for the ongoing season to continue to proceed unimpeded."
The temporary restraining order continues a yearslong saga that began when Dwight and Steven Hammond were convicted in 2012 of setting fire to federal lands adjacent to their federal allotments. Following the conviction, BLM in 2014 declined to renew the Hammonds’ four grazing permits covering about 26,000 acres of federal land.
The prison sentences handed down to the Hammonds sparked the armed takeover in 2016 of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon led by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s sons Ammon and Ryan.
A federal jury later acquitted the two Bundys and five others on charges stemming from the 41-day standoff (Greenwire, Oct. 28, 2016).
Trump last year pardoned the Hammonds, and six months later Zinke ordered BLM to reissue their grazing permits (Greenwire, Jan. 29).