Environmental groups have vowed to protest a Bureau of Land Management proposal to reissue grazing permits to Eastern Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond. The men’s imprisonment sparked the armed takeover and occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge five years ago this month.

The permit would allow Hammond Ranches Inc. to graze livestock on thousands of acres of public land near Burns. The BLM’s proposal argues that the Hammonds have historically complied with past grazing permits, despite repeated violations that demonstrate otherwise.

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Dwight Hammond Jr. greets protesters outside his home in Burns, Oregon, on Jan. 2, 2016.

Dwight Hammond Jr. greets protesters outside his home in Burns, Ore., on Jan. 2, 2016.

Amelia Templeton / OPB

“The problem is that the finding is false, and it’s counter to what is known based on the BLM’s own records,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, an environmental watchdog.

“Not only did Hammond Ranches Inc. violate the terms of their grazing permits, they did so in such a flagrant way that the principals went to prison,” he said.

A jury convicted Dwight Hammond and his son Steven of arson in 2012 for fires set on federal land more than a decade earlier. The mandatory minimum sentence for their crimes was five years in prison, but the trial judge gave Dwight Hammond three months and Steven Hammond one year. The men served the time and were released.

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The U.S. Department of Justice successfully appealed the initial sentencing decision, which then required the Hammonds to return to prison to serve out the full five-year minimum. The men’s reimprisonment inspired protests that led to the armed takeover and 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County.

President Donald Trump pardoned Dwight and Steven Hammond in 2018 after they had served roughly three and four years in prison, respectively.

The BLM then in 2019 attempted to reinstate the family’s grazing permits. The Western Watersheds Project led a federal lawsuit challenging the agency’s actions.

A district court judge blocked the BLM’s decision, saying denial of a federal grazing permit would not excessively harm the Hammond family’s business. The judge also said federal authorities needed to further evaluate the family’s history as stewards of the land before issuing grazing permits.

The agency’s proposed decision now asserts the Hammonds are in good standing and compliance with past permits. The BLM cites the Hammonds’ “extensive historic use of these allotments, past proper use of rangeland resources, a high level of general need.” The agency’s announcement came on New Year’s Eve.

Molvar said his group expects the Trump administration to approve the permits before the president leaves office. If so, the Western Watersheds Project will again consider legal action.

Attempts to reach Hammond Ranches Inc. and the BLM were unsuccessful.

Members of the public can submit comments on the proposed decision in person, in writing or by email until Jan. 15.

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