Parents should have the right to pass down to their children what they’ve worked so hard for all their lives. Mike and Linda Lee Hanley are much like many other hard-working farmers and ranchers in the American West. Their family ranch sits in Owyhee County, Idaho, a rugged region of steep mountains, canyons, and high mountain desert. When the Hanleys finally decided to pass their ranch on to their children, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) illegally cancelled the grazing rights on land they had worked for decades, destroying overnight what they had spent their entire lives building. If we don’t stop the BLM, what they did to the Hanleys threatens to devastate ranching families across the American West.
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Since the 1980’s, Mike and Linda Lee Hanley raised cattle in the “three corners” region of southwest Idaho and eastern Oregon, holding grazing permits for nearby federal lands. Their ranch had also been given a grazing preference – something that has always been attached to a property rather than a person. Grazing preferences can be sold as well as inherited. Most importantly, by law, grazing preferences exist independent of grazing permits.
The Hanleys transferred their private land over to their daughter and son-in-law, John and Martha Corrigan, so the next generation could take over the family ranch. The Corrigans applied for a grazing permit so they could step into their parents’ shoes.
However, BLM denied the Corrigans’ grazing permit application. Although the agency admitted that the Corrigans were fully qualified to receive a permit, BLM created the new (and illegal) theory that the family’s grazing preference automatically disappeared when their parents’ grazing permit was not renewed a few years before. Without this preference, BLM was free to give the permit to someone else.
The agency’s position was unheard of. This had never happened before to any rancher in America, and it flatly contradicts the BLM’s grazing regulations and case law. Moreover, the agency somehow “forgot” to tell the ranchers that it had cancelled their grazing preference years before. After the agency stonewalled, the Hanleys and Corrigans filed suit in federal court.
BLM’s actions threaten to further destabilize the already fragile Western livestock industry, destroying the century-old regulatory framework created by the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. That landmark statute created a unique system of permits and preferences, balancing government regulation and private property rights to protect both ranchers and the rangeland.
Bureaucrats often forget agencies cannot rewrite their regulations in a way that overrides Congress’s statutes. Ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in Public Lands Council v. Babbitt in 2000, it has been an open question whether some Clinton-era revisions to BLM’s grazing regulations run afoul of this basic legal principle.
Recognizing that the government’s action is a wider threat, Mountain States Legal Foundation filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association and Idaho Cattle Association. MSLF hopes that the Court will reverse the BLM’s action against the Hanley ranch for its failure to comply with the agency’s own grazing regulations. The case of the Hanleys and Corrigans demonstrates that BLM applied these new regulations in a way that violates the Taylor Grazing Act.
For ranching families, so much is at stake. If the BLM wins, extreme anti-grazing groups like Western Watersheds Project (who are involved in the lawsuit) will be able to claim that grazing preferences disappear anytime a permit is not renewed, and they will use this to accomplish their mission to end all public lands ranching. These groups, quite simply, want to put ranchers out of business.
MSLF supporters are making it possible for the Hanley and Corrigan family to fight in order to keep the family ranch they love. Ultimately, the BLM’s actions not only destroyed the Hanley and Corrigan family’s ranch – they threaten to destroy every public lands ranching operation.