Judge Blocks Grazing Permits for Pardoned Arsonists

Dwight Hammond Jr. greets protesters outside his home in Burns, Ore., on Jan. 2, 2016. President Donald Trump pardoned Dwight and Steven Hammond, two ranchers whose case sparked the armed occupation of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon. The Hammonds were convicted in 2012 of intentionally and maliciously setting fires on public lands. (Les Zaitz/The Oregonian via AP, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – A father and son can’t graze their cattle on public land permits granted after Trump pardoned them on arson convictions, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

Dwight Hammond and his son Steven were distant stars of the 41-day standoff between the FBI and armed right-wing militants that ended with one man dead. Among his demands, standoff leader Ammon Bundy called for the release of the Hammonds, who were convicted in 2012 of setting fire to their grazing allotments on public land adjacent to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge where the standoff took place.

Bundy’s demands went unanswered and the two Hammonds remained in prison – until President Donald Trump pardoned them and then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reissued their permits to graze cattle on four public allotments. The Bureau of Land Management had denied the permits in 2014 because of the two fires the Hammonds were convicted of starting, and their effects on sage grouse habitat.

In his order, Zinke cited the presidential pardons as “changed circumstances,” and did not find that the bureau’s conclusions regarding the Hammonds’ permit violations were in error. Bureau of Land Management district manager Jeffrey Rose then found the Hammonds’ permit could be excluded from the legal requirement to first compile an environmental assessment and an environmental impact statement – even though the land is priority habitat for greater sage grouse.

That entire process was illegal, according to a federal lawsuit filed last month by Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians. The groups sued Rose, the BLM, and current Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, asking the court to toss the permits until a proper analysis for the necessary protections for sage grouse is done.

They got one step closer Wednesday, when U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon issued a temporary restraining order blocking the Hammonds from grazing on the allotments pending his decision on a motion for preliminary injunction. A hearing on that issue is scheduled for June 28.

Judge Simon, who regularly issues the longer rulings out of the District of Oregon, noted Zinke’s analysis of the Hammonds’ grazing rights appeal took all of one paragraph. And in its answer to the lawsuit, Simon found that the government didn’t bother to dispute the facts alleged and did not show the environmental groups are unlikely to succeed in the case.

Simon wrote the environmental groups “sufficiently show a likelihood of harm to sage-grouse habitat and status on the Mud Creek and Hardie Summer allotments, especially if grazing were allowed in June.”

And the money the Hammonds and their operating company, Hammond Ranches Inc. (HRI), say they could lose doesn’t outweigh the environmental harm their grazing would cause, Simon found.

“Considering all the equities – that defendants likely issued the permit in violation of the law, the likely irreparable harm to a sensitive species, and the monetary harm to HRI of between $16,000 and possibly more than $100,000, the court finds that they tip in favor of plaintiffs,” Simon wrote.

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