PORTLAND — A federal judge on Friday extended a temporary restraining order against two Eastern Oregon ranchers, preventing them from grazing cattle on a pair of public allotments.
Environmental groups sued the government in May over reissuing grazing permits for Dwight and Steven Hammond, whose imprisonment for setting arson fires sparked the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore.
The lawsuit, filed by the Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity, seeks to overturn the Hammonds' grazing permit, which was reissued by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in January. President Donald Trump pardoned the Hammonds in July, 2018.
The environmental groups have requested a preliminary injunction against grazing cattle on the Mud Creek and Hardie Summer allotments near Steens Mountain while the lawsuit is pending to protect populations of sage grouse and redband trout.
U.S. District Judge Michael Simon issued a temporary restraining order against grazing on the allotments. The order was set to expire July 2.
During Friday's hearing, Simon extended the order through July 17, allowing more time for attorneys to submit additional evidence in the case.
Simon said he will rule on the preliminary injunction by then, though he will need time to review the new material.
Originally, Stephen Odell, an attorney for the federal government, had proposed a compromise on the injunction in which the Hammonds would have refrained from grazing on Mud Creek in 2019, and to reducing grazing on Hardie Summer from 50% utilization to 30%. But, he said, the sides could not come to an agreement.
Both Dwight and Steven Hammond were at the hearing. Steven Hammond declined to talk about the case.
The hearing proceeded with with seven hours of testimony from witnesses, who discussed how cattle grazing would affect the sage grouse and redband trout.
Clait Braun, a sage grouse expert who has studied the bird since 1973, said he was "shocked" by habitat conditions on the Mud Creek allotment due to grazing and wildfire. He estimated it could take up to 60 years for the land to recover, and said it should not be grazed for the foreseeable future.
"It is going to take time for forbs and native grasses to become re-established," Braun said.
Portions of the Hardie Summer allotment are healthier for sage grouse, Braun said. He advised against grazing to avoid habitat fragmentation, which can isolate populations and stunt gene flow.
J. Boone Kauffman, a professor of forest ecology at Oregon State University, said cattle also tend to prefer grazing in cooler, greener riparian areas before going to the uplands. That can lead to overgrazing, trampling streambanks and harming water quality, he said.
Grazing exacerbates threats to sage grouse on rangeland, such as the encroachment of juniper, cheatgrass and wildfires, he said.
"If not for livestock grazing, Steens Mountain would be a paradise today," Kauffman said.
Matthew Obradovich, a wildlife biologist for the Bureau of Land Management Burns District, pushed back against the notion that cattle grazing is universally harmful to habitat. Grazing can help keep down fine fuels on the range that are driving bigger and hotter wildfires, he said.
Obradovich also said grazing on the allotments would not pose significant harm to sage grouse on either the Mud Creek or Hardie Summer allotments.
For Simon to grant a preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs must prove that grazing will cause irreparable harm to the species. Neither allotment has been grazed for the last five seasons.
Both the Oregon Farm Bureau and Harney County, Ore., also filed briefs opposing an injunction.
"The consequences of a preliminary injunction on a rancher and their community can be extreme, and it should only be granted where the plaintiff has made a true showing of irreparable harm," the Farm Bureau wrote. "The harm alleged by plaintiffs in this case does not rise to this level, and OFB's membership is concerned about the precedent that would be set by this decision."
Harney County wrote that the injunction should be denied because halting grazing would exacerbate the risk of wildfire and negatively impact the local agricultural economy.