The owner of the Elk Mountain Ranch broke federal law by blocking four hunters’ access to public land and by harassing and intimidating them, the hunters’ attorney alleges in new court papers.

The filing in a civil case in U.S. District Court by attorney Ryan Semerad marks the first time the four Missouri hunters have explicitly charged the ranch owner with violating U.S. statute. In court action to date, including at a criminal trial in Rawlins where the four men were found not guilty of criminal trespass, attorneys only suggested that the ranch owner violated the Unlawful Inclosures Act of 1885.

“We have relied on this [UIA] argument to make other arguments throughout this [civil] case and the criminal case,” Semerad wrote in an email, “but this is the first time we have made this argument/defense directly.”

A court ruling on the matter could have implications for a decades-old BLM interpretation that prohibits corner-crossing.

“[Iron Bar Holdings] is now violating … existing federal law … by unlawfully enclosing public lands and/or by using force, threats, intimidation…”

Hunters’ attorney Ryan Semerad

Corner crossing involves stepping from one piece of public land to another at the four-corner intersection with two pieces of private land. The four hunters crossed at such corners, without setting foot on the Elk Mountain Ranch, where public U.S. Bureau of Land Management property and private lands lie in a checkerboard pattern in Carbon County.

It is uncertain whether the allegation might trigger a federal investigation or other action against the official ranch owner Iron Bar Holdings, LLC, the company’s wealthy North Carolina owner Fred Eshelman, ranch property manager Steve Grende or any other party.

Aside from the routine practice of not commenting on pending or ongoing investigations, U.S. Attorney Nick Vassallo’s office couldn’t immediately explain the investigative process and what or whose allegations it probes. Eshelman’s attorney, along with the BLM, also did not respond to inquiries.

1885 law

In a July 29 filing, attorney Semerad defended his clients against Eshelman’s civil claim.

“Plaintiff [Iron Bar Holdings] is now violating and has, at all times relevant to its claims in the Complaint, violated existing federal law … by unlawfully enclosing public lands and/or by using force, threats, intimidation, and other unlawful means to prevent or obstruct Defendants, as members of the public, from peaceably entering upon, freely passing over or through, or freely traveling over or through the public lands,” the document reads.

With the UIA, Congress protected legal access to federal property, especially in the West, by restricting landowners’ actions and structures. How and whether the UIA applies in the civil case could have a bearing on public access to some 8.3 million acres in the West, 2.4 million acres in Wyoming alone.

A photograph purporting to show the corner in question. (GoFundMe)

That’s the amount of acreage considered by the digital mapping company onX to be “corner-locked” by any definition that corner crossing is illegal.

During their 2021 hunt, the four hunters found two T-posts chained together at one checkerboard corner. They used a stile — a fence ladder — to climb over the obstacle. They claimed they were harassed, intimidated and threatened by Grende while hunting on public BLM land they accessed by corner crossing near the ranch.

Iron Bar’s civil suit claims the hunters damaged Eshelman’s ranch, a property that extends across more than 20,000 acres on and around wildlife-rich Elk Mountain. The ranch’s checkerboard layout “corner-locks” hundreds of acres of public land.

Separately, the Carbon County attorney in 2021 charged the four hunters with criminal trespass, arguing in the trial that they violated the ranch’s airspace. A Rawlins jury in April found them not guilty of the misdemeanor charges but none of the six jurors explained their reasoning to reporters at the end of the circuit court trial.

Eshelman’s attorney Gregory Weisz filed Iron Bar’s separate civil suit in state court. But a federal judge moved that claim to his venue at the hunters’ request, agreeing that the issue involved federal statutes.

Obstructing transit

A section of the 1885 UIA titled “Obstruction of settlement on or transit over public lands” prohibits landowners from blocking “…any person from peaceably entering upon or establishing a settlement or residence on any tract of public land…” No person “shall prevent or obstruct free passage or transit over or through the public lands,” the UIA states.

But another clause appears to protect landowners, stating that the law “shall not be held to affect the right or title of persons, who have gone upon, improved, or occupied said lands under the land laws of the United States, claiming title thereto, in good faith.”

The federal law has teeth, if prosecutors choose to use them. Any “owner, part owner, or agent, or who shall aid, abet, counsel, advise, or assist in any violation” of the act who is found guilty can be fined up to $1,000, imprisoned for a year, or both.

From the BLM’s perspective, the UIA does not protect corner crossing as a means to access public land.

“There is no specific state or federal laws regarding corner crossings,” the agency states in a pamphlet that appears to have been updated in 2013. “Corner crossings in the checkerboard land pattern area or elsewhere are not considered legal public access.”

Courts could decide whether the BLM policy and the UIA are in conflict.

That pamphlet reflects a 1997 opinion by an Interior Department solicitor. In writing that, Lowell L. Madsen, assistant regional solicitor for the Rocky Mountain region, flatly stated that corner crossing was illegal because it cannot be done without violating private airspace.

The fence ladder used by hunters in the corner-crossing case. (Wyoming Game and Fish)

“Under common law the one who owns the surface of the ground has the exclusive right to everything which is above it,” his opinion states. In Wyoming law, “[t]he ownership of the space above the lands and waters of this state is declared to be vested in the several owners of the surface beneath subject to the right of flight…” Madsen wrote.

The solicitor even addressed the possibility that a stile could preclude trespass if all four of its feet were on public land at a checkerboard corner.

“[T]he stile would invade the airspace of the owner of the cornering private lands [and] constitute a trespass,” his opinion reads.

Hunting with stile

That passage was prescient. The hunters — Phillip Yeomans, Bradly Cape, John Slowensky and Zachary Smith — used a portable stile to climb over an obstruction erected at the four-corner intersection in question.

In the hunters’ criminal trial in Rawlins, Semerad challenged the airspace argument, emphasizing that the Wyoming law states airspace ownership is vested “in the several owners” of the property below, including the public — owners of the federal BLM parcels.

The federal civil trial — as-yet unscheduled — may address the two metal T-posts driven into Elk Mountain property at the four-corner intersection. Photographs show the posts connected across the corner by a wire and chain. The two posts were connected to nothing else — no property-line fences — a photograph shows.

After the hunters left the area in 2021, the chain was removed, Elk Mountain Ranch property manager Grende testified at the Rawlins trial.

“It was removed because it had no purpose,” he said in court.

Courts have defined what constitutes an illegal enclosure, according to Madsen who quoted one ruling.

“[W]hen, under the guise of enclosing his own land, [a landowner] builds a fence which is useless for that purpose, and can only have been intended to enclose the land of the government, he is plainly within the (unlawful enclosures) statute, and is guilty of an unwarrantable appropriation of that which belongs to the public at large,” he wrote.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. What harm did it do when the hunters did ithat – the land owner is a dick – I hope the hunters Sue the socks off him!!!!

  2. This is a fascinating topic. It strikes me that, at the hypothetical corner there is a theoretical “no-man’s land” owned by nobody. It can’t be true that the public lands are contiguous at the corner at the same time that the private lands are also contiguous. It shouldn’t be legal to extend one’s fences through that point in space.

  3. this whole thing sounds like a playground pushing match grow up little boys and i believe that a padlock on two t posts don’t mean nothin

  4. I suspect the big shot out of state land owner did not realize someone else with money happened to be his target this time. His big money lawyers could have devastated an everyday hunter from Wyoming looking for his winter’s meat for his family. Perhaps it is time for hunters to organize and lease that land and the government giving priority to them, NOT out of staters, who probably do not even pay that much for their “:rights”

  5. This whole issued should be laid at the feet of the Federal Gov’t. They created this mess of checkerboard land ownership. I can see the landowner’s position and the hunter’s position. It’s a mess and it seems to me the only real solution is land trades (equal for equal). If that would even work.

  6. If public land can’t be accessed or utilized by the public, it is merely private land subsidized by the public. Sounds like ‘Federal Entitlements’ to me.

  7. Logical move: Most of us realize the coroner crossing situation must be resolved by the courts but in a manner which addresses the issue from all legal angles including the UIA argument. After the courts have ruled, legislation, land consolidation, acquisition of access corridors by eminent domain by the BLM, State or County should be considered. It could be some time for it to work out but its slowly headed in the right direction.

  8. The 1997 opinion by the BLM was just another attorney’s opinion though one having the weight of law until challenged. It is time to settle this issue with a court decision. This would be a case that would probably work it’s way to the SCOTUS. We will have something to watch over the next 5 years as we continue to be treated as a colony of the rest of the U.S.

  9. I’m confused by Wyofile headline which seems inaccurate, if the word “alleges” only means accuses or believes. My old Webster’s dictionary says allege means to “assert without proof.” Any thoughts? Has there been a ruling?

  10. Hmm, so if someone flies their drone over my yard or they drop a piece of litter in my driveway or they wobble on their bicycle and their tire goes on my grass, my private space – then I can sue them? Be careful what you ask for, Mr. Big Ranch Owner. This could be a Public Lands Pandora Box.

    1. well said, seems like a penis measure to me grow up people and stay off my land for i have no elk

    2. “Be careful what you ask for, Mr. Big Ranch Owner. This could be a Public Lands Pandora Box.”
      This is more of a be careful public land access people. If the courts rule there is no claim to airspace above private property it could then be legal for people to fly drones 1ft off your lawn and video you through your windows etc considering it would be considered public space. The landowner wants what you speak of.

  11. Again simple solution! Declare the last five feet of the corners public access, pay the landowners $5.00 for every square foot the government obtains or $250.00 and allow access to the public land as marked

  12. Here’s a solution, private landowners who have grazing leases on landlocked public either open up 24/7 access to these lands or forfeit accessing the parcels themselves. Apparently some don’t understand the term “public”

  13. What about airplanes? What about drones? The law as it stands makes no sense. It should be revised, and then we can argue about the details.

  14. The “checkerboard” was a tool for the settlement of the west that was supposed to go away, not remain for the enrichment of attorneys and confusion of the public. We should pass legislation that would give the Land Management agencies the mandate to consolidate the remaining and a deadline with penalties

  15. When the federal government gave every other section to the railroad for building it in the west, they created a nightmare of land ownership it is true. But those who purchased those sections knew they were required by law to grant access to others. In other words as one one the court documents later said.
    “They were knowing buyers.”
    Ideally land trades could consolidate private or federal ownership into a more manageable situtation. Perhaps someday that will happen. Right now, why should the land owners when laws have been created that gives them exclusive use of those federal lands.

  16. What is the definition of “airspace”. Is it a specified elevation or is it infinite? If so are airplanes in violation when they fly over these corners?

    A second question can a helicopter transport hunters up and over the corners?

  17. The airspace argument goes both ways. The chain connecting the posts on the private land would cross through the air space of public land.

  18. This has been an ongoing problem in Carbon County, it’s not right that landowners can create their own Hunting refuge and charge absorbent amounts of money to allow those with money or Friends and family to access public lands. It’s time something is done, being able to access landlocked public land would also encourage State and County revenue with more permits sold, game management and so on.

  19. Total nonsense. Wyoming ranchers own the grazing and surface rights on all public lands in this state, including Yellowstone and Grand Teton, hence have total control of access. What the rest of the citizens need to do is stay in your vehicle and do not leave the road right of way. Public land is not really “public” … do you comprehend?

    1. You are 100% wrong. Yes, they own the surface grazing rights. They do not have any access control over those lands except for in very few instances or if the land is landlocked by their property or surrounding property owners.(basically they don’t have to allow people through private property to get to public). If the public can legally access the property by land, air, or water the grazing permit holder CAN NOT deny them access.

  20. I have never heard of the legal definition of “private airspace” used by the BLM. Sounds to me like a made up term to protect those who want a de facto claim over land they don’t own or pay taxes on.

    I very much appreciate the hunters who are pursuing this case at enormous hassle and cost to themselves. It’s past time for this issue to be decided in courts so recreationists know who is and is not allowed to access these public lands.

  21. Personally I would like to thank the hunters who put up their own money and time to challenge the folks who shut access to our land and one good attorney!

  22. The states have always assisted in this act. Was all about granting “ranch” owners private fame reserves. Then turned around and granted the poor rancher wildlife damages every year.