Ranchers arrested at wildlife refuge

  BURNS, Ore. - The arrest of Dwight Hammond, a hot-tempered eastern Oregon cattle rancher, has galvanized a nasty campaign of retribution against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


It all began when federal agents arrested Hammond and his son Steven, Aug. 3. That turned a long-simmering dispute over cattle, fences and water on the Malheur Wildlife Refuge into a bizarre Old West showdown.


Federal officials and a fence-building crew were attempting to build a fence to keep the Hammonds' cattle from trespassing on the refuge. When Hammond and his son obstructed federal workers, they were taken into custody by nine federal agents, five of whom were armed.


The Hammonds were charged with two counts each of felony "disturbing and interfering with" federal officials or federal contractors. The Hammonds spent one night in the Deschutes County Jail in Bend, and a second night behind bars in Portland before they were hauled before a federal magistrate and released without bail.


On Aug. 10, nearly 500 incensed ranchers showed up at a rally in Burns featuring wise-use speaker Chuck Cushman of the American Land Rights Association, formerly the National Inholders Association. Cushman later issued a fax alert urging Hammond's supporters to flood refuge employees with protest calls. Some employees reported getting threatening calls at home.


Cushman plans to print a poster with the names and photos of federal agents and refuge managers involved in the arrest and distribute it nationally. "We have no way to fight back other than to make them pariahs in their community," he said.


Picking up the theme, the Oregon Lands Coalition declared in a recent newsletter, "It's time to get out the yellow ribbons - this is a hostage situation!'


On Aug. 11, Rep. Bob Smith, R-Ore., weighed in on the Hammonds' behalf in a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. "The acts of your agents last week cause my constituents to lose faith in their government," wrote Smith, who was under the erroneous impression that Hammond was arrested at his home rather than on refuge land.


The pressure apparently paid off. On Aug. 15, the U.S. attorney's office in Portland reduced the charges against the Hammonds from felonies carrying a maximum penalty of three years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine to misdemeanors that could mean jail terms of up to one year and fines of up to $100,000 on each count. A hearing on the charges, originally scheduled for early September, has been postponed indefinitely.


Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Thomson denied that Smith's letter influenced the reduction in the charges against the Hammonds. "That's all we thought was appropriate," he said.


According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, Dwight Hammond had repeatedly violated a special permit that allowed him to move his cows across the refuge only at specific times. In June, refuge manager Forrest Cameron notified Hammond that his right to graze cattle and grow hay on the lush waterfowl haven south of Burns was revoked. The feds also said they planned to build a fence along the refuge boundary to keep Hammond's cows out of an irrigation canal.


The events of Aug. 3 are outlined in the sworn affidavit of special agent Earl M. Kisler, who assisted in the Hammonds' arrest. On the day the fence was to be built, the crew and refuge officials arrived to find Hammond had parked his Caterpillar scraper squarely on the boundary line and disabled it, removing the battery and draining fuel lines. When a tow truck arrived to move it, Dwight Hammond showed up, leaped to the controls of the scraper and hit a lever that lowered the bucket, narrowly missing another special agent. Meanwhile, said Kisler, Steve Hammond shouted obscenities at federal officials. Neither Hammond resisted arrest.


"The refuge has been trying to work with Hammond for many years," said agency spokeswoman Susan Saul. A thick file at refuge headquarters reveals just how patient refuge managers have been. Hammond allegedly made death threats against previous managers in 1986 and 1988 and against Cameron, the current manager, in 1991 and again this year. Saul said Hammond has never given the required 24 hours' notice before moving his cows across the refuge and that he allowed the cows to linger for as long as three days, trespassing along streams and trampling young willows that refuge workers had planted to repair damage wrought by years of overgrazing.


Susie Hammond, Dwight's wife, said the cattle trail is a "historic right of way" that has been in use since 1871. "We have never had a permit," she said. "We have a right to use it."





* Kathie Durbin





The writer free-lances in Portland, Oregon.