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Expert: Corner crossing would diminish ranch values ‘at least 30%’

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A fence guards private property at the Elk Mountain Ranch, site of a corner-crossing controversy. PHOTO BY MIKE KOSHMRL

Real estate agent says he would devalue Elk Mountain Ranch by about $9.39 million if a court deems corner crossing legal

By Angus M. Thuermer Jr. WYOFILE

An expert witness in a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against four hunters accused of passing through the airspace above Elk Mountain Ranch says the alleged trespass has damaged the ranch by $1.64 million more than the $7.75 million previously asserted.

Attorneys for Elk Mountain Ranch owner Fred Eshelman last week designated real estate agent James Rinehart of Laramie as an expert witness in Eshelman’s civil suit against the hunters. Eshelman alleges the Missouri men trespassed on his 22,045-acre Carbon County ranch in 2020 and 2021.

Eshelman asserts that when the men corner-crossed — stepping from one piece of public land to another at a four-corner intersection with his ranch — they damaged him by up to $7.75 million. That’s based on a 25% devaluation of the Elk Mountain Ranch, appraised at $31.1 million in 2017.

Rinehart would discount the ranch by 30% if corner crossing was declared legal, he said in an affidavit. His figure would raise alleged damages to a total of $9.39 million.

The defendants say they never set foot on private property as they stepped from one piece of public land to another in a checkerboard pattern of ownership.

Neither courts nor laws have explicitly stated that corner crossing is legal or illegal, experts say. The case could have implications for public access to 8.3 million acres of public land in the West, according to one estimate.

A Carbon County deputy cited the four Missouri hunters for criminal trespass in 2021. A Rawlins jury found the men not guilty last spring but they still face the civil suit.

Corner crossing “is a primary factor to consider” among a majority of ranch buyers and sellers, Rinehart wrote. “If a rural or ranch property is subject to forced/lawful corner crossing, such could impact the value…

“[I]f a court were to declare that [the ranch] must allow corner crossing, it would be my advice to list the property at a discount of at least 30% from the appraised or perceived value of the ranch before taking corner crossing impacts into account,” he wrote.

Public/private melange

Private Elk Mountain Ranch land walls off thousands of acres of public land on wildlife-rich Elk Mountain, barring access to much of that public land without corner crossing or landowner permission.

Ranch real estate agents in Wyoming often advertise ranch property by listing both deeded private land and public land leases.

One recent listing for a property in Platte County, for example, states “the ranch is comprised of 7,589 total acres, which includes 5,331 deeded acres, 240 acres of BLM Grazing Permit and 2,018 acres of State Lease.” Another for an Albany County ranch advertises “54,209± total contiguous acres [that] consists of 25,764± deeded acres, 5,338± State of Wyoming lease acres, 8,251± BLM lease acres and 14,856± private lease acres fenced into the ranch.”

Real estate agent Rinehart, who describes himself as “an avid hunter,” states that corner crossing can “impact wildlife resources.” He analyzes how “hunting/fishing/recreation use … affect the value of real property,” an affidavit he signed states.

If hunters and others are not stopped from corner crossing on Elk Mountain, “extra miles of private land boundary … must be patrolled or controlled in the face of increased public access,” he wrote.

If corner crossing is legal, “such a ruling would negatively impact my ability as a licensed real estate broker to list, market and attempt to sell rural and ranch properties,” Rinehart’s affidavit reads.

Eshelman said in an interview with Triangle Business Journal that he likes to hunt mountain lions. He held nonresident landowner elk licenses for the Elk Mountain Hunt Area 125 in at least 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018 and a leftover elk license in 2017, Game and Fish information obtained through a records request shows.

Ranch property manager Steve Grende said at the criminal trial that Eshelman “was actually on the east side” of Elk Mountain when the Missouri men were hunting public land on the west side. Asked whether they damaged the ranch, Grende said “no.”

At the trial, hunters’ attorney Ryan Semerad likened Elk Mountain to a medieval feudal fiefdom in which wildlife is considered “the king’s deer.” Under Carbon County corner-crossing enforcement, wildlife that’s the property of the state and on public land is available only to Eshelmen and those he grants access to, Semerad argued.

When asked, the jury foreman would not explain why the body found the four not guilty.

1885 act

The hunters believe the 1885 Unlawful Enclosures Act prevents Elk Mountain Ranch from blocking their access to public land. That theory will be tested at the civil trial, which is expected to take place next summer.

“If the argument is that, absent corner crossing, the private landowner effectively controls public lands within their border, then that would seem directly contrary to the purposes of the UEA,” said Mark Squillace, professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Law School. He responded to questions from WyoFile in an email.

“If the UEA applies, then corner crossings have been legal at least since the passage of the UEA in 1885.” Nevertheless, “a realtor or appraiser who makes a reasonable assumption about the law that is only later found to be wrong should not be liable for over-valuing the property,” he wrote.

One law officer said in a video played at the criminal trial that he understood Carbon County is one of only three Wyoming counties that treats corner crossing as trespass.

Elk Mountain appears to have ample wildlife values. In the few days they hunted there, the show-me-state hunters were successful. They killed two elk and a deer.

Corner-crossing defendants wait for their trial to begin in Rawlins on April 27, 2022. They are Phillip Yeomans, second from left and partly obscured; John Slowensky, foreground in the front row, Bradly Cape, second from left in back row and Zach Smith, right. PHOTO BY ANGUS M. THUERMER JR

Never set foot

The four hunters used onX — a GPS map app on cell phones — to navigate their way across public land.

They showed law officers screen shots of their app, including waypoints they marked at the corners. 

A second, newly listed Eshelman expert witness, surveyor David Coffee, took “professional land surveying equipment” and a cell phone with the onX app to Elk Mountain at Eshelman’s request, according to court filings. At three different corner monuments he noted their coordinates as revealed by his surveying equipment, said to be more accurate than cell phone GPS. He compared those to the locations indicated by onX on the phone.

In court papers Coffee provided three comparisons that appear to show the onX locations as much as 6.814 feet away from the monument. On its website, onX itself says user-marked points “are usually accurate within +/- 2 meters,” or about 6.5 feet.

Relying exclusively on the onX app could have put the hunters several feet onto Elk Mountain Ranch land.

But the hunters stated on several occasions that they crossed at surveyed corner monuments and used onX only to get within sight of them. Regardless of coordinates, maps or apps, the surveyed corner monument is the legal property intersection, a surveyor told WyoFile.

“Real property is bounded by physical monuments,” said Rich Greenwood, a land surveyor who maintains the geographic information systems for 16 Wyoming counties.

One of the four hunters, Bradly Cape, is the owner of All-type Fence, Inc. of Cuba, Missouri, lending the hunting group some knowledge about property boundaries. At every corner in question, the hunters were able to locate the survey monuments — often less than a foot high — because a taller stake or T-post, as well as the onX app, marked their locations, according to court records.

At one corner they used a makeshift fence ladder to climb over two T-posts that blocked the corner, evidence at their criminal trial revealed.

Cape himself said in a conversation recorded by a law enforcement body cam video “we never had been on private land.” Fellow hunter Phillip Yeomans wrote in a statement that the group explained to ranch property manager Grende “that we crossed every corner legally and that we have pictures of every USGS corner and T-post marker.”

Wyoming Game and Fish Department law enforcement officer Jake Miller described the hunters’ actions in a report. “They understood that GPSs are only accurate to about 30 feet so they looked for the marker at every corner before crossing.”

In both the resolved criminal trial and the ongoing civil suit the hunters were alleged to have trespassed by passing through the airspace above Eshelman’s property.

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