BURNS, Ore. — Three environmental groups are suing to block the renewal of a federal grazing permit for Dwight and Steven Hammond, the Eastern Oregon ranchers whose imprisonment inspired the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns.
Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a complaint May 13 in U.S. District Court in Pendleton.
The lawsuit names Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the Bureau of Land Management and BLM Burns District Manager Jeffrey Rose as defendants. Environmentalists are challenging whether Hammond Ranches — run by father Dwight and son Steven — should be allowed to graze cattle on four public allotments.
As one of his last acts in office, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an order in January renewing the Hammonds’ permit through 2024. The BLM had revoked the permit in 2014, after the Hammonds were convicted of setting arson fires on the land in 2012.
Zinke’s decision violates the Federal Land Policy and Management Act since the Hammonds’ did not have a “satisfactory record of performance” as required by the law, the groups argue.
In 2012, the Hammonds were convicted of setting arson fires on the land, which they claimed was done to control the spread of invasive weeds. Prosecutors in the case requested mandatory five-year prison sentences, though a judge opted instead for terms of three months, which both men served.
Then in 2015, the government successfully appealed the Hammonds’ prison sentences for arson and they were re-sentenced to serve the full five years.
The case helped spark a 41-day occupation and standoff at the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The Hammonds did not support the occupation.
President Donald Trump pardoned the Hammonds in July 2018. In his order to renew the ranch’s grazing permit, Zinke wrote that his decision was in line with the intent of the pardons, and “in particular, their reflection of the president’s judgment as to the seriousness of the Hammonds’ offenses.”
Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said Zinke operated unilaterally outside of the normal appeals process to reach his decision.
According to the lawsuit, the fires set by the Hammonds resulted in damage to sage grouse habitat, increased the spread of cheatgrass and put firefighters at risk.
“Somehow a presidential pardon is supposed to erase all the grazing violations as if they never occurred. That’s nonsensical,” Suckling said. “A presidential pardon does not in any manner whatsoever erase the fact that the Hammonds violated the grazing permit.”
Hammond Ranches could not be reached for comment. The BLM state office in Portland also did not immediately return a message for comment.
Suckling said Zinke’s order was politically motivated, and violates principles of democracy and due process.
“It sets a horrible precedence,” he said. “What we need to do out there is let the land managers and scientists do their work in accordance with the processes in law.”