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Court Rejects Trump Administration Renewal of Hammonds’ Grazing Permit
Because of Hammond Ranches’ pattern of violating federal rules and the terms of its permit that disqualified it from renewal, U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon found that then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s decision to renew the permit “was arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, not rationally connected to the facts before the agency, inconsistent with the governing statutes and regulations, and an unexplained change in agency practice and procedure.”
Today’s ruling suspends future grazing on these allotments until the BLM can comply with federal law and regulations and engage the public in any new decision to allow grazing to resume.
“When ranchers break the law and abuse public lands, they should lose their grazing permit every time,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. “Restoring grazing leases to ranchers who violate the terms and conditions of their leases encourages the livestock industry to continue abusing public lands and degrading habitat for native fish and wildlife, and fans the flames of extremism, the likes of which resulted in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge debacle.”
The BLM revoked the Hammonds Ranches’ grazing privileges in 2014 after Dwight and Steven Hammond were convicted of arson on federal lands in 2012. In January 2019, on his last day in office, Zinke abruptly overruled the BLM and renewed the permit.
The BLM grazing regulations require that permittees have a “satisfactory record of performance.” Judge Simon concluded that the Hammonds were disqualified not just because of the arson convictions, but also due to their conduct surrounding other fires they were accused of setting and that Zinke ignored this in his decision. The Hammonds also were accused of making death threats against federal officials, according to news reports.
“This ruling confirms that federal grazing permits are a privilege, not a right,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The BLM is charged with protecting wildlife on public lands, not facilitating political favors. Thankfully the judge understands that fragile populations of birds, fish and other animals will be harmed if livestock run rampant in this beautiful place.”
The allotments lie on Steens Mountain, a special, congressionally protected landscape that’s critically important for greater sage grouse. But the birds’ population there has declined by 50% in just the past decade. Grazing has hastened that decline by trampling the birds’ habitat, damaging wet areas they depend on for food, and eating grasses that the sage grouse rely on to hide from predators.
“This decision will finally force the BLM to honestly disclose the serious environmental harm grazing causes and, with comment from the public, put restrictions to protect sage-grouse and other native species into any new permit,” said Judi Brawer, Wild Places program director with WildEarth Guardians.
Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians filed the lawsuit in May to challenge renewal of the Hammonds’ grazing permits. In July the judge ruled that livestock grazing could not be justified as a way to reduce wildfire risk and that grazing at permitted levels was likely to cause harm to sage grouse and rare redband trout. The judge granted a partial injunction that reduced or blocked livestock grazing on two of the four grazing allotments.