The wildlife that lives in the Great Basin

Raw Story in January 2016:

In a Raw Story exclusive, former and current employees of the Malheur Refuge have provided new revelations on the conflict between Dwight and Steve Hammond, two local ranchers who have clashed with federal government agencies for decades. The employees claim the Hammonds illegal grazing was damaging the refuge that’s home to 320 bird and 58 mammal species. They allege the Hammonds lawbreaking ranged from aerial hunting of animals in the refuge to death threats against employees and their families to cattle grazing that was altering the entire species composition of critical ecosystems.

The beef the Hammonds currently have with the feds is over access to land under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. More than 20 years ago the Hammonds also had a permit for grazing on the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. That was canceled in the mid-90s because of what officials say was the Hammonds’ constant violation of the permit’s terms. Today, the [Fish and Wildlife Service] is still caught in the middle because the Hammonds need to cross the 187,700 acres of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge to access the BLM land on which their cattle are allowed to graze.

Marvin Plenert, 80, who served as Northwest regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service from 1986 to 1994, says the agency tried to accommodate the Hammonds. “We gave them a day to cross through the refuge and they took two or three weeks to do it. They were in your face about everything. They kept pushing the envelope, cut fences, cattle wound up in the refuge illegally.”

It’s now well-known that Malheur, an oasis in the arid Great Basin that spans six states, is called “one of the crown jewels of the National Wildlife Refuge System.” It’s a “crucial stop along the Pacific Flyway and offers resting, breeding and nesting habitat for hundreds of migratory birds and other wildlife.” But the little-known story is how years of uncontrolled grazing by Hammonds and other ranchers were sending shockwaves through the refuge.

Cameron says when he arrived at Malheur in 1989, relations were “fairly good” with local ranchers, and about 30 of them had permits for grazing and haying on refuge land. Prior to his arrival changes had been made to match grazing policies with enforcement. He says National Wildlife Refuges allow public recreation in any way feasible. “That can be hunting, fishing, birdwatching, hiking — as long as it’s compatible with the wildlife on the refuge.” Cattle had been grazing year-round on Malheur, but the policy has a higher threshold for economic uses like grazing. “It has to be beneficial to wildlife or otherwise we don’t allow it.”

Implementing the prescribed grazing practices led the Hammonds and Fish and Wildlife Service to butt heads in the early 1990s over the Bridge and Mud creeks and a watering hole for birds. Cameron says Hammonds’ cattle would get into Bridge Creek, a deep canyon, “until someone drove them out.” The cattle would devour woody plant species crucial to the ecosystem.

With the loss of the anchoring trees, the banks started eroding. Cameron says the creek would “become like a drainage ditch and the water table in the meadows around the creek would start dropping.” The effects rippled through the meadow, altering the entire species composition. Unable to reach water, grass would die off, sagebrush and other undesirable species would take root, and ground-nesting birds would lose breeding sites. He says, “Studies show 80 percent of the wildlife that lives in the Great Basin depends on a healthy riparian habitat, and that’s what was along Bridge Creek.”

Cameron oversaw the rebuilding of fences around the refuge that had been wiped out by floods in the 1980s, removing some corrals for cattle that were of little use under the new grazing guidelines, and restoring habitat. He claims corrals in areas where cattle grazed “enticed the Hammonds to leave them there and they would get into the riparian areas, rather than moving them through the refuge.” Both Cameron and Plenert, the former regional director, say the Hammonds would leave their cattle on the refuge for weeks at a time, damaging the land despite the clear rules.

Cameron says, “The cattle like to eat the young plants, willows, elderberries we were trying to introduce in the creek banks, it’s like candy for them.” An entire replanting was wiped out by the Hammonds’ cattle and “a year or two later we would go back and try to restore the habitat to stabilize the creek banks.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service built new corrals for ranchers. Cameron says, “It was on dry land, had a water supply, and trucks could get in and out to haul cattle if needed.” As for the 30 other permittees, “We were able to work with them very well. It was really mainly Dwight Hammond. We tried to work with Hammonds but they didn’t want to lose the free grazing they had for a long time. But the grazing was illegal to begin with because it’s wasn’t their property.”

In 1994 the Hammonds disabled a Caterpillar the FWS was using to fence a watering hole, and they were arrested and charged with felonies.

The charges were lessened and eventually dropped after the Hammonds entered into an agreement with provisions including a halt to interfering with fence construction and moving their cattle through the refuge in one day, which Cameron says is doable.

Leading up to the 1994 incident were the death threats. Cameron says, “My wife would take these phone calls, it was terribly vulgar language. They said they were going to wrap my son in barbed wire and throw him down a well. They said they knew exactly which rooms my kids slept in, in Burns. There were death threats to my wife and two other staff members and their wives. My family went to Bend rather than be in the community because it was so volatile at the time. The families of my biologist and my deputy manager family had to relocate as well for a short time.”

“At the refuge headquarters, one of the Hammonds said they would tear my head off and shit down the hole. One of the Hammonds told my Deputy Manager, Dan Walsworth, they were going to ‘put a chain around his neck and drag him behind a pickup.’” Cameron says it became practice “never to meet with the Hammonds alone and usually to have a law enforcement officer present.”

No wonder Trump likes them.

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