Cattle graze

Cattle graze in Eastern Oregon.

Oregon’s Hammond Ranches has dropped a legal challenge against the federal government, at least for now, to compete for access to grazing allotments it lost last year.

Instead of waiting until the legal dispute is resolved, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management can now choose whether the Hammond family or one of three neighboring ranches can use the 26,000-acre BLM allotments.

Hammond Ranches hopes that U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and the BLM will issue a permit to graze the four allotments as soon as possible, though it’s possible they may not be available for livestock this year, said Alan Schroeder, the company’s attorney.

“It’s tough to speculate what the secretary will do or the BLM will do,” he said. “One would certainly hope the BLM would move forward forthwith.”

The agency will conduct an analysis of qualified candidates but doesn’t have a specific timeframe for awarding the grazing permit, said Tara Thissell, pubic affairs specialist for the BLM Burns District.

Steven Hammond and his father, Dwight Hammond, were released from prison in 2018 after President Donald Trump granted pardons for their arson convictions, for which they were serving five-year mandatory minimum sentences. They had been convicted of burning public lands.

Though the Interior Department restored the grazing permit to Hammond Ranches in 2019, a federal judge overturned that decision after agreeing with environmentalists that it wasn’t properly substantiated.

Because Hammond Ranches had again lost access to the public allotments, the company’s administrative appeal — which sought to recover its grazing permit — was effectively re-activated.

However, earlier this year, the BLM announced that it would allow the Hammonds and other ranchers to compete for the allotments.

Unless the Hammonds withdrew their legal challenge, however, the agency would suspend that process until the dispute was resolved.

While Hammond Ranches has now withdrawn its appeal, it has done so “without prejudice,” which means the company reserves the right to reinstate its legal objection, said Schroeder, its attorney.

The federal judge’s decision that rescinded the grazing permit did not vacate the grazing preference for Hammond Ranches, so the company still holds that preference, he said. “We’re certainly maintaining that position.”

Grazing preferences are important because they attach to a “base property” in the vicinity of the federal allotments, placing the ranch first in line for a grazing permit. In effect, such a grazing preference greatly enhances the value of a property.

However, a federal judge determined this year that BLM can cancel such a preference without a notice and hearing at the same time it decides against renewing a grazing permit.

Cattle groups argued that treating grazing preferences this way would undermine the stability of the Western grazing system and reduce the values of private ranch lands.

In its application for a permit, Hammond Ranches warned that it would demand “immediate compensation” for its range improvements, water rights and intermingled private lands if BLM awards access to the allotments to another ranch.

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