While an advocate of public lands protection, I also want them to be accessible, so that all can continue to enjoy Wyoming’s wild, beautiful landscapes. I realize that entails sharing them with many interests. For historically public lands have provided a living for many good folks. Pro-development policies created the West where we live. It was a culture focused solely on using western resources to enrich our nation. But those policies have created some major inequities.
After years of worrying about trapping and poisoning on public lands, my patience has reached its limit. While this piece is not intended to demonize agricultural users of the public lands, I believe it is time to address inequities promoted by that community.
When I walk around town with my dog, I keep her under control. Even on public lands, I certainly don’t want her chasing wildlife or livestock. So I have diligently trained her to be a good neighbor. But, when I travel on public lands I worry that I, my dog, family or friends, will trigger a cyanide trap or another trap set by my rural neighbors and/or trappers to catch predators or fur-bearing animals. While fewer lethal poisons are legal now, they still exist.
Current multi-use of public lands makes trapping and poisoning a questionable practice, unless it is done under strict supervision by experts.
I lived part time on our family sheep ranch as a kid, so I understand how difficult it is to run livestock where predators abound, and know livestock is not raised to feed predators. But I wonder, does that mean we have to make our public lands a killing zone to protect livestock grazing?
For years, the interests of Wyoming’s agricultural community have dominated the legal system here. Rustlers are still given heavier penalties than domestic abusers. Livestock is sacred.
Even drivers have learned the perils of motoring in Wyoming’ livestock country.
We hit a black cow on the paved Seminoe Highway after dark. At the crack of dawn the next day, the landowner called demanding payment pay for it. It was open range but Wyoming citizens are liable, if they hit livestock on unfenced public roads or highways.
Then a couple years later we hit a calf that had gotten onto the fenced Saratoga Highway. We tried to avoid it, but smashed a front fender. This time, we didn’t have to pay for the calf, but the livestock owner didn’t pay for damage to our vehicle either. Apparently, livestock owners aren’t liable under Wyoming law for damage their livestock causes. And yet, livestock owners expect the state to pay them for damage inflicted by Wyoming’s wildlife. And so it is infuriating that if I don’t want them on my property I must fence them out. It seems Wyoming laws bend over backwards to protect the rural landowners from their urban neighbors.
In Wyoming hundreds of thousands of public acres are “landlocked” by the checkerboard pattern of ownership. Now, there is a case pending against hunters who used a ladder to corner cross near Elk Mountain. While the hunters didn’t step on private land, the owners are claiming trespass of their air space. They based this on a law passed years ago after an enterprising hunter hired a helicopter to access private, land-locked state lands. A law was passed forbidding flying over private lands saying that air space over private land is owned by the landowner.
How ludicrous! Aircraft flies over private land all the time.
It used to be that the Unlawful Enclosures Act prevailed in the checkerboard. Even other livestock owners could move their stock across the mix of public/private lands. Judges for years ruled that the private owners were knowing owners of that land and had to allow access for other livestock, wildlife and humans. As late as the 1980s, a U.S. federal attorney ruled it illegal to deny public access in the checkerboard and even suggested ranchers could lose their grazing permits for denying it.
This could not be tolerated. Ten years later a U.S. attorney from Wyoming issued a 180-degree different opinion based upon restrictive Wyoming laws passed in the interim. This essentially gave the private landowner total control of all the public lands in the checkerboard. THE PUBLIC WAS LOCKED OUT.
I respect the hard work of our ranching community. Those are my roots. Many have changed grazing practices and worked to protect the resources on the land. Most have a good land ethic. And, I know rural citizens are often beleaguered by inconsiderate members of the public that leave gates open, litter on their land or help themselves to private property. But their restrictive, entitled attitude about the resource has created a smoldering resentment that invites that kind of behavior. Being a good neighbor requires fairness and a level playing field for all use of our public lands.