An Oregon ranch’s “priority” access to neighboring public lands in Idaho expired along with the landowner’s grazing permit, regardless of who now operates the property, according to a federal judge.
The ruling affirms a decision by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that “threatens to subvert the entire system of public land livestock grazing,” according to cattlemen’s groups tracking the dispute.
The dispute relates to the “preference” for grazing permits provided to private “base” ranches that neighbor federal property.
In this case, the 1,900-acre Hanley Ranch near Jordan Valley, Ore., once served as the “base property” for access to public grazing allotments on 30,000 acres of BLM land across the state border in Idaho.
However, the federal government refused to renew the landowner’s grazing permit due to an “extensive record of noncompliance,” such as “trespass on the public lands by grazing cattle in excess of approved numbers.”
The ranch’s owners, Michael and Linda Lee Hanley, leased the base property to their daughter and her husband, Martha and John Corrigan, who requested a transfer of the property’s “grazing preference” to them.
However, the BLM determined the base property’s preference was extinguished along with the grazing permit for the Trout Springs and Hanley Fenced Federal Range allotments. In 2018, the Corrigans challenged the agency’s decision in federal court.
The Corrigans argued this “new disappearing preference theory” violates the Taylor Grazing Act, a foundational 1934 law governing public rangeland management, as well as the BLM’s own regulations.
According to their complaint, the grazing preference or priority is attached to the ranch property itself and serves “a separate and different function” than the grazing permit, which regulates the activities of specific people and their livestock.
The BLM has conflated the two concepts in a way that “leads to irrational results,” such as potentially terminating a property’s grazing preference if the landowner leases the ranch to someone who doesn’t qualify for a grazing permit, the plaintiffs argued.
In other words, “the owner of the base property will have lost the grazing preference independent of any of his own actions, without any notice or process,” according to the Corrigans.
The Corrigans were joined in their arguments by the Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association and the Idaho Cattlemen’s Association, which filed a legal brief claiming that BLM’s “new interpretation turns a fundamental aspect of the Taylor Grazing Act on its head.”
The federal agency’s decision in this case “effectively destroys the concept of grazing preferences” and could “devalue private lands across the West” for ranches whose owners don’t get permits renewed for whatever reason, the groups argued.
“Even if a rancher has a permit that is not renewed for reasons that do not stem from improper livestock management (e.g., non-use or changed resource conditions), there is the threat that his grazing preference will disappear, creating a penalty without an offense,” their brief said.
The Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group, intervened on behalf of the government to argue the grazing preference was properly canceled to protect public lands from “further grazing abuses.”
The plaintiff’s understanding of grazing preferences would basically create an “indefinite entitlement or property-based right” that would undermine environmental protections, since ranchers would always be first in line for a permit regardless of their conduct, the environmental group said.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill ultimately sided with the federal government and environmental group, ruling that grazing preferences cease to exist when permit renewals are denied for non-compliance.
If the Hanleys had simply sold the ranch with the grazing permit in good standing, the preference would still have been attached to the base property, the judge said. However, failing to comply with the permit’s conditions means the preference is also lost.
“A preference is not some self-contained privilege that needs to be separately cancelled with notice and a hearing,” Winmill said. “It is instead a privilege to renew a permit — once the permit is not renewed due to noncompliance, the preference disappears at the same moment the permit disappears.”