Hammond Grazing Rights Caught Up In Litigation

By Katie Schrock


The Hammond family has never wanted the national attention that has been thrust upon them. A mainstay in their small community of Harney County in southeastern Oregon, Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven, were originally charged with burning more than 45,000 acres of federal land near their ranch, dating back to the 1980’s.  Ultimately, the two Hammond’s were convicted of setting a 2001 fire that consumed 139 acres of federal property.  Steven was also found guilty of intentionally lighting a “back burn,” a process used to combat wildfires with a controlled fire, that spread onto an acre of public land in 2006.

Originally, a prison term of three months for Dwight Hammond and one year for Steven Hammond were imposed in 2010.  The federal judge found the five-year mandatory terms required under federal law to be too harsh.  The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision in 2016 and the ranchers were required to serve the full five year term.  At this time, the Hammond’s lost their permits to the public lands that they had been grazing cattle on for several family generations.

In 2018, President Donald Trump pardoned the Hammonds.  Then, at the end of December 2018, in one of his last acts in office, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke granted the Hammonds the return of their 26,000 acres of federal land grazing permits.  Secretary Zinke cited the pardon by President Trump as his reason to restore the Hammond’s permits.

It would seem that all would be getting back to normal for the Hammond family, but the story wasn’t over.

Currently, the Hammonds are still struggling with litigation from environmental activist groups hindering the return of Hammonds’ cattle to their public land permits. At the root of what seems to be a political battle is federal land that needs fuels reduction and Hammonds’ cattle could provide that.

Harney County is situated in eastern Oregon, the most remote area of the lower 48.  It is desert country, marked with sagebrush and juniper, and the average annual rainfall is 10 inches.  In 2019 alone, they have received 9.83 inches of rainfall and 12.05 inches of rainfall since October 1, 2018 (compared to 6.61 inches the same date range the year prior).

The permits of the Hammond family have been sitting, unattended, for the past three years that Dwight and Steven Hammond were incarcerated.  With a plethora of ecological science and rangeland management information being produced from the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station and UC Davis’ Department of Plant Sciences, it is proven that, without grazing and proper management, the land will have degraded tremendously in that time period.

The BLM noted the negative change in the Hammonds’ permitted BLM allotments by the encroachment of invasive species and juniper.

Two large factors contribute to a very real concern for devastating wildfires to launch this summer and fall; lack of grazing for the past few drought-ridden years and a surplus of rainfall resulting in extreme fuel load increase.  A time sensitive situation, if this land is not taken care of immediately, the devastating impacts of wildfire sweeping through eastern Oregon could be immense.  Impacts to the land, including habitat modification for endangered species like the sage grouse, will be unavoidable.

But, because of national attention around the Hammond story, environmental activist groups have locked them in litigation, prohibiting them from using their permits until the case is settled.

The Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association are interested in the profession of this case and they hope to protect the BLM’s authority to put good management on the rangeland.


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