U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl on Thursday rejected a request to move a civil suit against four corner-crossing hunters back to a Wyoming court.
In a seven-page order, Skavdahl wrote that he had “little difficulty finding by a preponderance of evidence” that four Missouri hunters met the burden of proof required to keep the legal action in the federal venue. The owner of the Elk Mountain Ranch, Fred Eshelman, earlier this year sued the men in Wyoming’s Carbon County District Court for trespassing in 2021 when they corner crossed to hunt elk and deer on public land.
The hunters’ attorneys successfully argued that the case belongs in a federal court and got it moved there. Eshelman’s lawyer tried to wrest the suit back to the Wyoming venue, saying the issues raised were under state laws.
Skavdahl’s order keeps the case in the federal legal arena where nationwide public-land access laws come into play.
Who said what
The hunters had several avenues to demonstrate why the suit should stay in the federal court and Skavdahl settled on one called “diversity jurisdiction.” To be considered in federal court, an issue needs to involve a value greater than $75,000 and also be between, or among, residents of different states.
Eshelman is a North Carolina resident and the hunters are from Missouri, leaving the “amount in controversy” at issue. Skavdahl wrote that Eshelman’s complaint itself valued the controversy at more than $50,000. He wrote that Eshelman had claimed the corner crossers, if they prevail, would affect his ownership of the ranch and, by implication, its value.
Eshelman also claimed that unless the men were stopped he would suffer “irreparable injury” and that the hunters “may intend to encourage other persons to carry out unlawful ‘corner crossings’” on his ranch, which is larger than 20,000 acres.
“[Eshelman’s] allegations readily demonstrate the value of its requested declaratory and injunctive relief exceeds the $75,000.01 jurisdictional minimum of this Court,” the judge wrote.
Further, Skavdahl said he had to consider that the four men would “be effectively barred from accessing the landlocked public land on which they enjoy hunting” if Eshelman’s civil suit succeeds.
“Such access to public lands has value to Defendants, who traveled from Missouri to Wyoming to engage in recreation on public lands, and that value must be included when determining the amount in controversy for this case,” the judge wrote.
Eshelman filed a civil suit in Wyoming’s Carbon County District Court against Bradly Cape, Phillip Yeomans, John Slowensky and Zach Smith asking a judge to declare that the men trespassed when they corner crossed from one piece of public land to another. Filed under the company name, Iron Bar Holdings LLC, the suit asked the Wyoming court to impanel a jury only to determine what penalty the four should pay.
Corner crossing is the act of stepping from one piece of public land to another at the common corner with two pieces of private land — all arranged in a checkerboard pattern. The hunters never set foot on private property.
In a case separate from Eshelman’s civil suit, a Carbon County Circuit Court jury on April 29 found the hunters not guilty of criminal trespass for corner crossing at Elk Mountain Ranch to hunt on public land.
Why it matters
There are no state or federal laws governing corner crossing and the practice remains in a legal gray area. As such, many recreationists are dissuaded from corner crossing to reach public land out of fear they could be prosecuted.
An estimate by onX, a digital mapping company that sells a hunting app to guide people to public land, puts the amount of public land that can be accessed only by corner crossing at 8.3 million acres across the West. In Wyoming, “corner-locked” public land amounts to 2.44 million acres, according to the company.
A federal decision on the legality of corner crossing could affect some or all of that acreage.
Meantime, the Wyoming Legislature is expected to take up trespass issues Monday when the Joint Judiciary Committee meets in Lander.