The corner-crossing case involves four hunters who claim to have stepped chess-bishop fashion from one piece of public land to another where the public parcels (represented by white squares in this photo) share a four-way corner with two private parcels (black squares) without touching private land. (Eddie Wong/FlickrCC)

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.

History

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.

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. The law has long recognized the concept of an “easement by necessity.” It’s time to apply that principle here. Another option is to apply a high property tax to landlocked public lands, equal to what it would cost to rent them from the state or the Fed. This might make people think twice about keeping them locked up.

  2. I’m glad this case will stay in federal court. It’s readily apparent that the outcome will have impact over many different states and their residents. Further, the land in question is owned by all citizens of the United States. As such, it should not be a decision solely based in the state of Wyoming. This entire case, both civil and criminal, has the feeling that it could be setting something of a precedent.

  3. The Wyoming legislature would be wise to think long and hard. The Missouri hunters have brought sunlight to a long standing problem of wealthy oligarchs thinking they have exclusive right to public property. This case is being watched across America, and the bigger question being asked is whether the government is going to stand for the people, or the rich influence.
    We’re watching, WY legislature……..

  4. Stands to reason – a Federal court in Wyoming will issue a decision and then it will probably go on to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. The Wyoming legislature would be wise to wait until Scott Skavdahl’s decision is made before they even consider legislation.

  5. Angus,
    Thank you,
    Please note, onX reports 2.44 million landlocked acres; however they’re including State Trust Lands in this figure. I believe the Office of State Lands and Investment indicates there is 1.1 million acres of State Trust Lands.
    As a reminder State Lands are not managed for recreation, like USFS or BLM which are managed for “multiple use by multiple users” .

  6. Keeping this case Federal will cause the scene to look just a little bit bleaker for both rich man Eshelman and the bought n’ paid for Wyoming legislature that would definitely change the trespassing laws to suit their over-lords. Awww, moot point ‘cuz when Rex Rammell gets in as Guv’, he’s going to run all of BLM, Forest Service and Nat’l Park federal employees out of the state.

    1. No he won’t run BLM and Nat’l park employees out. He is all bark no bite. In the end he will bow down and try to get more federal money into budget. All politicians talk big. In the end they roll over and get their belly scratched. Let’s hope the lawsuit blows up in this landowners face