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Cattle rancher, subject of possible White House pardon, had years of disputes with Malheur wildlife refuge

Duane Ehmer carries an American flag as he rides his horse, Hellboy, at the occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016 near Burns, Ore. The occupation came in protest of the jailing of two ranchers for arson. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

PORTLAND, Ore. -- A southeastern Oregon cattle rancher whose sentence for arson on public lands helped spur the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge had for decades fought against federal workers in the region amid claims they were hurting his operations, according to federal documents obtained by The Washington Post.

The rancher, Dwight Hammond Jr., and his son, Steven, are among those whom the White House is considering for presidential pardons. Their convictions for arson have drawn sharp rebukes from the local community amid allegations that the family was aggressively prosecuted using anti-terrorism statutes because they were outspoken about public land use in rural Oregon. Media outlets here -- including the Oregonian, the Bend Bulletin, the Baker City Herald and the Capital Press — have published editorials advocating for a presdential pardon, seeking clemency for the two men.

Well-known in Oregon for their stances advocating public use of federal lands -- especially for grazing of livestock -- the Hammonds have been in many ways intertwined with the Bundy family of Nevada, which also has been fighting the government over land-use rights in the Western states. The Bundys played a significant role in the Malheur takeover, running the lengthy siege in 2016 ostensibly as a protest of the Hammonds' federal sentences.

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Long before the Hammonds were convicted of two counts of arson on federal lands -- crimes that require a mandatory minimum jail sentence of five years in prison under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 -- the elder Hammond was at odds with federal authorities over their handling of the land near the family ranch in Diamond, Ore. Though Hammond had a permitted arrangement to graze on Malheur, he argued that a fence erected to control that grazing was unfair, and he several times lashed out at staff there, at times threatening them with violence, according to the documents, which include letters Hammond wrote to federal authorities and federal records kept at Malheur.

Hammond's attorney declined to comment on the documents and the dispute, as did the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Copies of the documents were provided to The Post by Melissa Laughter, a Las Vegas woman who participated in the Malheur occupation and has since become a vocal critic of the movement. She said she secured the paperwork at the time because she believed the Hammonds have been mistreated and feared the records would be destroyed. She said she alerted federal authorities to the documents and said she wanted to make them public because she worries their fate might be tied to an incident to which they weren't a party.

“It became increasingly clear to me that the Hammonds were just a convenient excuse for the entire Oregon carnival,” Laughter said.

An official familiar with the long-standing dispute confirmed the authenticity of the documents and the nature of the relationship between Hammond and staff at the wildlife refuge, noting that balancing the refuge's conservation priorities and the desires of ranchers often proved difficult.

The documents indicate that Dwight Hammond's concerns about Malheur ran deep, beginning with confrontations in 1986 over the placement of a fence at the edge of the refuge and demands from federal authorities that Hammond give one day advance notice before trailing his cattle across refuge lands to graze in a meadow. In letters to refuge directors, Hammond called employees “gestapo” and threatened that if he did not get unfettered access to grazing lands, “the problem will be greatly amplified.” In another, he said he’d “pack a shotgun in his saddle” as a way to enforce his position.

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Letters between the elder Hammond and federal staff show the rancher growing increasingly frustrated with the refuge and its policies, which he viewed as controlling a public resource. In 1987, federal employees at the refuge became fearful of “a real physical confrontation with Hammond,” reads one note, handwritten in blue pen.

“I am very concerned that your relationship with our refuge staff has deteriorated to the point that you have verbally abused our employees and feel the sheriff (or the coroner!) might be involved in future discussions,” a Fish and Wildlife official wrote to Hammond after one meeting. The then-refuge manager, George Constantino, also wrote to Hammond: “All the anger, shouting and threatening in the world cannot erase the fact that trailing through the Refuge is a privilege that can be controlled and yes, stopped by the Refuge.”

On March 12, 1987, Hammond came to the refuge and told Constantino that he would call him a day before his next cattle drive across the property “and that I should bring the sheriff so there would be a witness to watch him ‘tear your head off’” Constantino wrote in one document. In 1988, Hammond wrote that the fence caused “a very unlivable situation” and “we are a long way from being subdued.”

Constantino declined to comment when reached by telephone this week.

The Hammonds claimed that the fence was keeping their ranching operation from being successful — but the refuge was productively working with several other ranchers, who had the same arrangement. In 1994, Hammond’s grazing permit was canceled after he cut the fence down and allowed his cattle through to feed; the cancellation notice included a notation that "a gate was located immediately south of the cut that you made in the fence."

That summer, on the day a new fence was to be built, Hammond and his son allegedly parked heavy equipment in the path of the construction crew and shouted obscenities. The men were arrested.

In 2012, the men were convicted of two counts of arson on federal lands. The first fire occurred in 2001, when, according to the Department of Justice, Steven Hammond was accused of lighting a fire to cover up an illegal deer hunt on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Federal authorities alleged at the time that Hammond passed out matches because the family wanted to light "the whole country on fire." The Hammonds claimed a second suspicious fire five years later was a prescribed burn — lit in the midst of a burn ban and without permission from the BLM — that got out of control and burned a small patch of federal land.

U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan said a lengthy sentence would “shock the conscience,” giving the elder Hammond just three months, and his son a year and a day, behind bars. The men served that time and headed back home to their ranch in Diamond, Ore. In 2015, the government won an appeal that overturned Hogan’s decision, which required them to return to jail and serve out the full five years. Outrage over the sentences led to protests in the streets of Burns, Ore., and in January 2016 began a 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Though Hammond had long-standing issues with Malheur and supports Oregon cattle rights, the family did not support the siege, an event that Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, says was a shame for Oregon ranchers, who opposed the occupation. “We absolutely oppose what went on, and we oppose the breaking of the law,” he said. “Do we feel that the Hammonds were treated unjustly and unfairly? Absolutely we did.”

Some fear the Malheur incident has affected the Hammonds' case; few ranchers and farmers came to the side of the Bundys during the occupation, as most protesters were focused on anti-government sentiment unconnected to Hammond's concerns. Rosa made an appeal to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on a recent visit to the area to urge Trump to grant clemency to the Hammonds.

“I think the Hammonds would have been out a long time ago if the Bundys kept out of here,” said former Harney County judge Steve Grasty, who has known the Hammonds for decades.

Years before patriarch Cliven Bundy was a prominent range rights activist, Dwight Hammond was speaking about his interactions with the government around the West and in Washington, D.C., fighting to remove the fences restricting ranchers like him, to remove things like federal wildlife refuges and regulation over how the land is used.

“I have said many times before,” Hammond told a reporter in 1994, “we are getting down to issues I am willing to die for.”


An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the Oregonian and Capital Press published editorials calling on President Trump to pardon Dwight Hammonds and his son Steven; both outlets published editorials advocating for a pardon while Barack Obama was president. The article has been updated.

Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.