Elk Mountain and an entrance to Elk Mountain Ranch near Interstate 80 in Carbon County. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

A federal judge ruled Friday that four Missouri hunters did not trespass when they corner crossed and passed through the airspace above Fred Eshelman’s Elk Mountain Ranch.

Chief U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl granted the hunters’ request to dismiss most of Eshelman’s lawsuit that claimed the men trespassed and caused more than $7 million in damages. The men corner-crossed in 2020 and 2021 to hunt public land enmeshed in Eshelman’s 22,045-acre ranch.

Corner crossing involves stepping from one piece of public land to another at the common corner with two pieces of private property, all arranged in a checkerboard pattern. Corner crossing avoids setting foot on private land.

“Corner crossing on foot in the checkerboard pattern of land ownership without physically contacting private land and without causing damage to private property does not constitute an unlawful trespass.”

Judge Scott Skavdahl

The ruling has implications for public access to 8.3 million acres of “corner locked” public land in the U.S. The hunters argued that the federal Unlawful Inclosures Act of 1885 prevents Eshelman from obstructing access across the corner.

“This is a long overdue and singularly great outcome for the entire American public and anybody who enjoys public lands,” the hunters’ attorney Ryan Semerad said. He and his colleagues “fully expect” an appeal.

The judge’s ruling did not address the disputed allegation that one hunter, Zach Smith, did set foot on ranch property at a spot well removed from one of several contested corners. A digital “waypoint” that Smith created in 2020 on the onX hunting app is located on Eshelman property, the ranch owner says. That proves Smith was on the ranch, the landowner and his attorneys have alleged.

Smith and his lawyer say the “Waypoint 6” could have been made from anywhere and its location proves nothing.

“A genuine dispute of material fact exists to preclude summary judgment concerning the alleged Waypoint 6 trespassing (which does not involve corner crossing)” Skavdahl wrote in his 32-page order. Any damages Eshelman would claim for that alleged transgression would be limited to “nominal damages” and not the $7.75 million Eshelman had claimed in lost ranch value, the judge wrote.

Skavdahl has scheduled a trial in June where that now-separate Waypoint 6 trespass allegation could be resolved.

“We do not know what will come of the remaining issue of material fact,” Semerad said of what he called “errant Waypoint 6.”

“For now, all my clients are very, very happy,” he said.

Wyoming Backcountry Hunters and Anglers launched a fundraising campaign in 2021 to ensure the hunters, Smith, Bradly Cape, Phillip Yeomans and John Slowensky, could have their day in court. The organization hailed the ruling.

“Today was a win for the people, both in Wyoming and across the country,” Land Tawney, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers president and CEO, said in a statement. “The court’s ruling confirms that it was legal for the Missouri Four to step from public land to public land over a shared public/private corner.

“Coupled with recent legislation passed by the Wyoming Legislature, we are happy that common sense and the rule of law prevailed,” his statement reads. “Backcountry Hunters & Anglers applauds the court’s careful balancing of access to public land and respect of private property rights. We look forward to finding more solutions to access — together.”

Skavdahl observed that with respect to the corner crossing issue “[t]here is no evidence the hunters made physical contact with [Eshelman’s] private land or caused any damage to plaintiff’s private property,” either in 2020 or 2021. The judge also agreed with Eshelman that he generally owns the airspace above his property and is entitled to use it.

But even property rights come with limitations and restrictions, Skavdahl wrote.

“History, federal case law, federal statutory law, and recent Wyoming legislation demonstrate corner crossing in the manner done by Defendants in this case is just such a restriction on Plaintiff’s property rights,” he wrote. “[D]efendants, ‘in common with other persons [have] the right to the benefit of the public domain,’ which necessarily requires some limitation on the adjoining private landowner’s right of exclusion within the checkerboard pattern of land ownership.”

Zach Smith holds the ladder used to surmount fence posts to reach public land adjacent to Elk Mountain Ranch in this exhibit filed in the trespassing lawsuit. (Exhibit/U.S. District Court)

The judge summarized and analyzed relevant court precedent to conclude that “corner crossing on foot in the checkerboard pattern of land ownership, without physically, contacting private land and, without causing damage to private property does not constitute an unlawful trespass.”

Even when the hunters grabbed two Elk Mountain Ranch fence posts, chained together as an obstacle at the first corner they encountered, and swung around them to step from public land to public land, they were protected by the UIA, which prevents landowners from blocking access to public land, the judge said.

WyoFile could not reach Eshelman’s attorneys Friday afternoon.

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. Other countries, such as New Zealand, require public access easements through private land to the cut off public land

  2. The issue of public lands locked in private property is a serious issue. Landowners have been charging guid services on public land that is locked for decades. That must end..gaining access to public land should be a right.
    If we can’t use it then they should not be able to as well.

  3. I can’t help but give additional thoughts to this huge victory to the American taxpayers. Some truly want a 10 foot public easement so they can bring in conventional vehicles to presently landlocked lands. I would want at least some of the public lands to not allow such obscene access as I suspect the need of enforcement of existing law becoming mandatory as a result (more Warden/Ranger traffic due to more public, both additive.) A narrow easement to allow for basic, primitive recreation and hunting seems a good compromise to keep down undesirable noise, trash, drama and many other issues.
    Has the “Jetson ONE” aviation vehicle scenario begun to surface, in light of it all? If you’ve not seen these, check out YouTube! I expect more lawyers to further enrich themselves and courtrooms becoming further backlogged if these become as popular as ATVs, germane to this subject where airspace as defined by the States and FAA may well go through a stress test of their own. I need not mention any names but am expecting (and predicting) significant trolling to arrive in due course.
    I’m just bringing attention to a likely future trend for your serious consideration and amusement. Pop the corn and may the People Prevail at the Tenth Circuit!

  4. I applaud the ruling and good job to the four hunters and the BHA. Now, we need a 10 foot easement at all public land corners.

  5. The waypoint six may not be on the private property. I’ve had issues with OnX hunt app although it is very good the actual boundary lines are not always clearly marked or accurately worked between private and public property one area in particular that we hunt has approximately 400 to 500 yards Marked as national forest that is actually part of a private ranch. The ranch has been surveyed and a clear line of the boundary of the property with posted signs are in place however. The OnX hunt app team have tried to correct it, but did not correct it enough. It is a great app but not always accurate. Double check where you are.

  6. This is something.
    We can see 4 wheelers, boats, and all sorts of things coming thru the corner and chasing wildlife from the small safe haven that they once had. Maybe even a sandwitch shop,,,

  7. The whole sounds like good reason to question the whole sequence from “It’s all owned by the Indians” to the current checkerboard of private and public ownership. What can and needs to be done to start to straighten this out?

  8. I won’t repeat what everyone has said, just kudos to those who stood their ground in this fight. Someone needs to also tackle the unconstitutional and illegal obstruction of navigable rivers in the state through the same sort of antiquated trespass laws that say the landowner owns the bottom of the river bed. Anything below the high water mark should be the public domain. This has already been proven in Federal court in Montana and earlier in state courts in midwestern states like Missouri that now have active and robust river floating, tourism. I’m all for property rights, but all property rights are limited by the law. There is no such thing as an absolute property right.

  9. The corner crossing rule is a win win for the average person who wants to hunt, fish, camp and recreate on land locked public lands. This is long overdue it is so arrogant that so many ranchers fill they own land that they haven’t paid a penny for. I feel the legislators and governor should make an automatic 10ft. easement where 2 public properties touch. this would allow the public to access their property with your truck and camper. I am contacting my state representatives with this idea.

  10. Excellent work and persistence in this fight for America and we’ll done Wyofile on the reporting 👏

  11. The whole “custom and culture” fantasy world and the West’s latest Gilded Age have taken a shock with this decision. I am a hiker and wildlands advocate and have declined to corner cross because I never thought I had the resources to stand up to a trespass challenge. Not sought a possibly violent situation in my part of Wyoming. Those that claim public primacy on access through all private land to access public land are as off kilter as the plaintiffs. We don’t have that in law. The judge in this case nails the limits of both public and private interests. I have a packable ladder and a couple of corners that have had my interest for years. Love it.

  12. Access to public to lands needs more than corner access they need rite away for vehicles.

  13. I am 64 years old and have lived in Casper for 56 years. I have been hunting and fishing since I was old enough. This issue has been a problem since I can remember. Usually it is a landowner that doesn’t even live here, that tries to landlock the area. Public land is just what it says– owned by “We The People”. So, if there is this kind of dispute, then there has to be an easement put into place. We it becomes a me, me, me situation with a landowner ( that thinks he is above everyone else) then its time for intervention. I have personally talked to landowners that have told me that they don’t want people to use the public lands bordering their property. Simply because they either have a grazing lease or they want ONLY their family and friends to hunt the public land. They consider the public land that borders their private land to be off limits to ANYONE. There used to be good private landowners, but there are not near as many now. This ruling by the judge is a great step in the right direction.

  14. I’ve always kind of felt it odd when ranches are for sale and it would be advertised as say 33,000 acres (3,000 deeded). Like it was a God given right to the extra 30,000 acres.

    1. Yet another downfall of the federal grazing system. It has allowed it to become ingrained through generations that the permittee owns the land.

  15. This hindering of public access to public land has quite a history in this part of Wyoming. Those of you who are old enough and have been here long enough remember the public land access grab by an outfit called Safari Club in the 70’s and 80’s. This was nothing more than another attempt to completely control public access through intimidation by a small group of ranchers. I personally experienced this intimidation near Elk Mountain and on the Miracle Mile Road west of Medicine Bow on several occasions through the years. Their attempt at controlling my public land access was not successful as I continued to legally access our public lands during this harrassment . Their intimidation was not subtle and physical harm was always part of the penalty alot like the corner crossing case. This is just the beginning to finally open up public access to public lands by ending their greedy claims and illegal tactics. I just hope cooler heads prevail until a final verdict is rendered because this rancher has never been told no and will stop at nothing to attain his self serving goal of stopping legal public access.

  16. Elk mountain ranch should be charged with a hefty land use bill by the state for blocking excess to public land and using it for personal monetary gains, then be forced to remove the barrier that blocks public entry onto another section of that said land.

  17. I agree with the court ruling. However, what happens when you harvest an animal and try removing it over the same route and boundaries? It becomes tenuous and may even be dangerous.

    1. I think if you field dress it, quarter it, and put it on your back then it’s no more difficult or dangerous than going in.

  18. I personally know two of these men! Both are class acts. Never have I seen either do anything to hurt anyone. Both hold their pride very serious. Sounds to me like the landowner is trying to buy seclusion. He owns private land next to government ground. He knew people would be hunting the public.

  19. I applaud the ruling. Blocking access to public land should not be allowed….particularly in a “corner crossing” scenario. Good on ya BHA!

  20. This is a large step in the right direction of accessible to public ground. I respect private ranch owners as I also own a ranch and do not like trespassers on my ground
    But as a hunter and outdoor enthusiasts we need to come together to protect the rights of private land owners and the right of access to public ground without restriction . Ranchers have spent millions to keep unwanted trespassers off there land but American tax payers spend millions every year for our public ground we need to work together to come up with a solution to allow the public on the land we own without damaging private property owners.

  21. Great. Finally someone with common sense! They have kept public land for their own use way to long. Needs to be public access so that we all can enjoy it. Keep up the good work.

  22. This checkerboard land is about as stupid as a box of rocks.
    State and feds need make a 10′ wide easement at every such corner by eminent domain.
    Problem solved.
    Again this whole thing is stupid and easily and permanently solved.

    1. Agreed. The history of the checkerboard is ridiculous. A land swap would be a fair solution. But reducing a ranch’s stated acreage, even if the lease acreage remained the same would piss a lot of people off. Particularly out of state billionaires. Upsets their net worth. Waaa.

  23. I hope this is a Court of Record so future cases can refer to its findings. There was a previous case where the hunter prevailed but it was in a lower court that did not establish precedence.

  24. Common sence prevailed their still should be a corner easment that would allow access by more than foot traffic if that traffic were not restricted. This would allow less moble americans to access americas public lands

    1. John Thompson – Randy – that document is part of the public record and is available. Start at the court’s website. Get the case number and search for it. If it’s not posted, ask a clerk to provide it for you.
      I agree this is a common sense decision – a big win for public land users. The only motivation a landowner has to block public access to public land is greed.

  25. Counter sue! Please counter sue. Make an example of this fred guy! He is unlawfully controlling public land. He orders his employees to unlawfully interfere with hunting activities. If he appeals… defeat him again. The American Public needs justice for these crimes, and for all the hard earned dollars that have fought against his pocket change in court! He deserves to loose way more than he’s spent so far.
    If anything, I pray that the public attention this case has brought convinces the government to address the issue of land locked and corner locked BLM land. We pay taxes, we get access! Not just in Wyoming.

  26. Wishful thinking perhaps, but I hope this marks the beginning of the end for livestock farming on public lands, in all states with federal public land. The meat markets would hardly notice. No one would starve as a result, either, irrespective how many ill-informed people may make claims to the contrary.

    1. Grazing on public land increases the amount of beef, mutton, and wool available for Americans to eat. Punishing all food producers for the bad behavior of a few is just as silly as being a jerk like the rancher, especially since it would necessitate a decrease of available meat for the masses at a reasonable price. Like everyone else ranchers and other food producers depend on what they have to sell instead of a paycheck in the usual sense.

  27. Under the current configuration of the SCOTUS, which Wyoming had a hand in creating, this victory for the public will be over turned. He who has the gold makes the rules and the gold holders have already bought the conservatives on the Supreme Court. Wyoming has voted against its interests for a long time.

  28. Great news for all western states!! This is now a settled issue unless reversed somewhere down the road, which is highly unlikely. Opens up lots of opportunity here in Montana! Way past time for this to happen.

  29. Next on the agenda of public land users is the Heart Mountain Canal District up in Cody. They’re blocking several thousand acres of public lands and shutting down public roads. We’ll be seeing you welfare farmers soon………

  30. The public has won ! It doesn’t happen very often. I want to thank backcountry hunters and Anglers of the fight that the fought for not just these four men. But for every person that uses the outdoors. This is a big deal. Thank you Gentlemen !

  31. Growing up in Carbon County and hunting there in the 50’s and 60’s we had what seemed like the freedom to hunt almost anywhere. Wyoming has certainly changed

  32. This whole problem is lack of common sense. How do you have public property AND private divided by 1/4 inch of fence? To restrict from public because of 4 corners is ridiculous. Simple solution is to buy 4 square feet at said corners. This allows a 2 foot x 2 foot passage from public to public? Common sense?

  33. Many of us have followed this story with great interest, since it affects us all! We will be praying that the appeal has the same result. Good old fashion, common sense judgment. I would like to know exactly how the landowner was being damaged, aside from his 22,000 acre ego?The irony is that you know good, and well that the landowner Fred E. was using that public land. But when his fellow Americans tried to do the same thing all of the sudden it was different! God bless those hunters for standing up against him, and God bless the many sportsman and concerned citizens that came along side with the money and support to fight back! And win! Don’t be too hard on the Eshelman’s! That’s been my name for over 65 years. Our original European roots had a pretty amazing legacy! There’s always a rotten apple somewhere!

  34. I don’t see we’re they caused 7 million in damages crossing a fence I feel land owner is trying too use this it’s wrong to try an keep people out of public land there crossing on corner it seems they just want to keep everyone out if they crossed legally how did they cause millions in damages just seems wrong

    1. Because now he can’t charge people hefty amounts of money for hunting his ranch if they shoot a trophy elk on public land which he has been doing the whole time….

  35. That’s what is should be no trespassing. Public land is public land. Wish we had access to land locked public land.