A hunters’ group wants Wyoming residents to debate corner-crossing laws and other trespass issues, saying it won’t wait on a foot-dragging Legislature to have a robust statewide conversation.

The Wyoming Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and others last week proposed that disputed aspects of what constitutes trespass in Wyoming be ironed out through legislative committee hearings over the next 10 months. But a lawmaker said new legislation should not be considered before the resolution of a pending federal court trespass case.

Members of the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee will decide whether to recommend that the Legislature studies trespass before next year’s legislative session. But at least one representative is skeptical of taking up trespass as a broad interim topic.

“I like to be proactive,” Rep. Cyrus Western (R-Big Horn), a hunter who works in commercial real estate, told the committee, “but I think in this situation it might be a little bit better to be reactive, see how the courts react, what kind of rulings are made and then go from there.”

In coming months a federal court could resolve one trespass issue arising in Carbon County where ranch owner Fred Eshelman has sued four Missouri hunters alleging $9.39 million in damages. Eshelman claims they trespassed when they corner-crossed — stepped from one piece of public land to another and passed through the airspace above his property without setting foot on his land.

 “We’re not going to wait 20 years to have the conversation.”

Hunters’ lobbyist Sabrina King

The four hunters say they have a right to access and hunt the public land. They and others believe ranch and property owners like Eshelman are using the corner-crossing trespass threat to co-opt public land for their exclusive use, including hunting.

But a decision in that suit, if the case runs its course, could be narrowly focused, said Sabrina King, a lobbyist for BHA. Furthermore, the Legislature has approached the topic with lethargy, she said, taking almost 20 years to codify a Wyoming attorney general’s opinion on one small aspect of corner crossing.

“People are sick of waiting,” King told WyoFile. “We’re not asking for permission [from the Legislature] to talk about it anymore.”

20 years in the making

At its just-completed session, lawmakers passed a bill codifying a 2004 attorney general’s opinion that game wardens can’t cite hunters for corner crossing. Gov. Mark signed Senate File 56 – Prohibiting travel across private land for hunting purposes last week to hunters’ approval.

Although the law is now part of game and hunting statutes, it does not prohibit county prosecutors, sheriffs or other law-enforcement officers from citing trespassers, including hunters, in corner-crossing cases, King said. So the legality of corner crossing itself remains unsettled. The uncertain threat of prosecution keeps many public-land users in Wyoming from corner crossing to access some 2.4 million acres of federal and state property.

Stock growers, influential in Cheyenne, have been firmly against condoning corner crossing. Senate File 180 – Corner crossing-trespass exception, a measure sponsored by Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie), but which lacked a Republican co-sponsor, died in the Senate this year. That’s despite King’s observation that corner crossing appears to be at the forefront of trespass conversations.

“Regardless of what you’re talking about, corner crossing comes up,” she told the TRW committee. “People want to talk about it. People have a lot of questions about public access.”

Corner-crossing is not the only trespass item that interim legislative hearings could consider, Josh Metten, field manager with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, told the committee. He pointed to the bipartisan federal Modernizing Access to Our Public Lands Act that seeks to identify easements, rights of way and other access avenues and boundaries relating to recreation on federal lands.

“That’s one example of something that can come out of this,” he said.

Rep. Western, however, admonished against a sweeping review. He would, he said, entertain focused investigations like how to boost Game and Fish’s Access Yes initiative to increase hunters’ use of what the department calls “private or inaccessible land.”

That doesn’t address the larger public-land issue, which King described as involving more than 8,000 Wyoming property corners and 1,200 landowners.

The TRW committee did not decide last week what it would propose for interim study. It is expected to recommend topics in a letter to the Legislature’s Management Council, which meets March 23 to finalize interim study priorities.

Going it alone

BHA will go it alone if the Legislature won’t join in, King said. “We’re not going to wait 20 years to have the conversation,” she said, adding that most hunters support private property rights and want clarity on trespass rules.

Hunters were likely relieved that one trespassing bill failed last month. A Senate committee killed Rep. Barry Crago’s (R-Buffalo) House Bill 126 – Trespass-removal of trespass that would have legalized the use of physical force to eject a perceived trespasser from private property.

Sabrina King talks with former Rep. Tyler Lindholm in 2018 when she was director of ACLU Wyoming. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Hunters testified against it, saying it would have inflamed tensions in potential boundary and trespass disagreements. King, among others, worried about “the escalation of conflict in the field” if the bill had become law.

In a different move that was favorable to hunters, lawmakers passed a bill that makes it illegal to post no-trespassing signs on public land. House Bill 147 – Unlawful trespass signage-taking of wildlife, brought by Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie), is a game and wildlife law applicable to hunting, not hiking or other activities.

It applies to landowners who “knowingly” place or maintain false signs, essentially requiring a game warden to notify the owner that a sign is wrongly placed.

Corner-crossing rose in the public consciousness with the Carbon County trespass case, which started with criminal charges against the four Missouri men. A six-person jury last year found the hunters not guilty, but the separate civil case endures.

Corner-crossing conflicts grow largely from the checkerboard pattern of land ownership created through railroad land grants in the 1800s. The patchwork pattern of alternating one-mile squares extends across most of southern Wyoming for 20 miles on either side of the Union Pacific Railroad line.

This story was corrected to reflect that the checkerboard pattern of land ownership extends for 20 miles on either side of the Union Pacific Railroad line. — Ed.

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. I’m a 72 yr old hunter/outdoorsman for over 60 years, and while I respect ranchers and their way of life, access to public land for responsible hunting and fishing, should not be hindered by landowners. Wyoming has by far the largest landlocked public ground being kept from public access. I support any initiative that would allow accessing this locked publicly owned land.

  2. This issue should have been resolved once and for all back in 1885 with the enactment of the “The Unlawful Inclosures Act” (UIA) which contains broad prohibitions against all enclosures of public lands by any means in order to preserve access. The UIA prohibited: “All inclosures of any public lands… [and any such inclosures] are hereby declared to be unlawful, and the maintenance, erection, construction, or control of any such inclosure is hereby forbidden and prohibited.” We as public land owners should assert this right and get this settled!

  3. If one looks at the $9.3 million damage payment at face value, the source of that is the ecosystem services on the neighboring Federal property since the hunters did not step on private property. By leaning on County and State law enforcement officials (and now a potential 9.3 million damage claim) they are attempting to privatize that public service generated by the ecosystem services on those Federal and State lands. But privatization of that service should be dealt with the same way we do for privatization of any public resource (e.g. coal, oil and gas) and should be taxable. Since $9.3 million is the owner’s claimed value it would be the value of the ‘severed’ service. So the owner owes taxes to the State and County forward and going back to when the individual purchased the land and attempted to sever and privatize that service. Using a 2021 average mill levy of 68.198 for Carbon County, and of course, like fossil fuel resources it should be taxed at 100% of its stated value, that comes out to an annual tax bill of about $634,424 / year going forward and back taxes subject to what the mill levy was in the past and is in the future. Since the hunters were only next to one parcel that would also mean every parcel the landowner owns that is next to Federal land could be taxed on the claimed $9.3 million.

    Or, the individual could encourage public access to the Federal and State parcels by building hunter – passable fencing and working with the good people in Wyoming Game and Fish and County Government. Then they could get a pass on the tax payment because it is access to a public resource, not a severed resource.

    1. Hear hear! Land locked private holdings of public lands are a rich man’s playground. If land lockers are able to keep the public out, they should pay their fair share of taxes. Following the Wyoming tax structure for oil and gas seems logical as it mirrors private gain from public resources.

  4. Stonewalling is a great tactic, from the the “Stiff”. Worried about pissing-off donors, over the greater constituent that can’t access millions of acres, because of Billionaire fluff, like–” I”m damaged” by your “tresspass” so give me millions…Pathetic.

  5. Years ago when elk mountain was owned by other owners there was a case where a motor-powered paraglider flew into public lands on elk mountain. The paraglider harvested an elk on the checkerboard and then flew back over private lands removing the elk. I remember at the time it was a big deal and the paraglider legally entered the airspace according to my recollection. It seems like degavue all over gain. Is my mind playing games with me or did it actually happen? Wasn’t legal precedence set back then? Can someone fly a helicopter over private land and hunt on public land on elk mountain?

    1. My understanding is that private property “airspace” extends only 500 feet above the ground. So yes, a helicopter flying greater than 500′ over private property is not trespassing and can legally pass over to public land.

  6. Those that want access to public land will no longer be denied. Times are a-changing. Those holding grazing rights on public land will hopefully see the hand writing on the wall. If not then………..

  7. A9 million dollars in damages; gonna break his heart when he doesn’t get it. Only damage I can see. It’s disgraceful, shameful that these hunters had to go to the extreme they did to not bump into this bully. Reminds me of highschool drama. Keep our public lands accessible at all costs.

  8. Yes, Chris, thanks for the correction. You have very well stated the legislator’s ridiculous representation to the Wyoming folks.

  9. Landowners double the size od their holdings, don’t have to pay ownership tax and are able to graze their livestock for a pittance. Like the old rock and roll song”
    MONEY FOR NOTHING AND CHICKS FOR FREE”. What a great deal for them.

  10. All public land should be accessible to the public. There is almost always somewhat of a road through it but can only ever be seen or used by the few that have a key to the locked gate. These roads should be made an easement. It would not effect ranching, only the practice of selling public wildlife.

  11. It seems like one solution would be to mandate access to the public land as a part of the lease agreement. No agreement, no lease. They can choose the type of crossover, gate or steps, but they should be required to do so and failure should result in loss of lease. Food produced by ranchers is vital, but so is the ability for folks to hunt for game. Cooperation benefits everyone.

    1. That should be a no brainer. Easy fix, if they don’t want to lease it on those terms.
      There will be plenty of others that will be waiting in line to comply with those terms.

  12. DERELICTION of present and past legislators. Long time kicking the can down the absurd journey by the judicial. Damages to the public past and present, grotesque. FOLLOW THE MONEY.
    (House bill 126) Flip side of this humor, make it lawful to physically remove landowners denying access to public lands.

    1. You speak of the HB 103, the Barry Crago -make it legal to physically harm a suspected trespasser-………one of the most childish, ridiculous Bills ever introduced. It got shot down very quickly and painted Crago as a little man trying to make it in a big boys world. Epic fail. Sadly, he’s not the only unqualified and unproven to sit in our legislature

  13. In addition to rational debate on the corner-crossing issue, a productive exercise would be thoughtful Federal -State -Private exchanges that eliminates thorny corner crossings where possible. Wyoming governors and others have complained about the antiquated “checkerboard” for decades. Maybe it’s time to actually do something about the problem rather than endless complaining.

    I believe it’s possible to establish contiguous corridors of BLM / State Lands (and private) ownership patterns in certain areas of the southern Wyoming checkerboard. It won’t be a cure-all panacea, but it would be a start.

    In the current political climate, highly unlikely that BLM would be the lead agency to get the ball rolling, so that leaves Governor / State Lands / State Land Board. Possibly equally unlikely, but why not give it a try?

  14. Never forget that the ultimate goal of Wyoming Republicans is to sell off all of our public lands to their rich friends with the remainder to be given to Russia in gratitude for their help in electing Trump and electing Wyoming Republicans!

    1. Agree. The Wyoming legislators think they represent their contributors and only them. Basically the Republican line does this local, state, and national.

    2. That’s not just blowin’ smoke.
      Back when Republicans actually published their party platform they had two “planks” which explained their motives:
      1. Transfer all federal land into state land; and
      2. Transfer all state land into private ownership.
      It was simple and clear: get rid of all federal land ownership in Wyoming.

  15. Rep. Barry Crago really shot himself in the foot, pun intended, over his disastrously crafted yet laughable ‘beat up trespassers’ bill that was ridiculed and scoffed at from border to border. Crago should stick to that low totem pole assistant county attorney work (since private sector might be a bit to harsh to handle) and let the big boys and girls legislate. As far as the Eshelman-Elk Mountain ranch ordeal, well, this big man will go down in the courts. It’s 2023 and the citizens want their public lands!

    1. This will do nothing to crago’s reputation unfortunately. He’ll spout some freedumb caucas nonsense and get back in good graces with the gullibles of the gullible ol’ party.

      Just so long he’s got the scarlet R next to his name, he’s go nothing to worry about