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Hunters pan legislative inaction, call for citizen response on corner crossing

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The checkerboard pattern of public and private land ownership extends across much of Wyoming for 10 miles on either side of the Union Pacific Railroad line. Bureau of Land Management property is colored yellow. White indicates private property. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT

Lawmaker reluctant to consider new laws while a $9-million civil suit against four Missouri men is pending in federal court.

By Angus M. Thuermer Jr. WYOFILE

A hunters’ group wants Wyoming residents to debate corner-crossing laws and other trespass issues, saying it won’t wait on a foot-dragging Legislature to have a robust statewide conversation.

The Wyoming Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and others last week proposed that disputed aspects of what constitutes trespass in Wyoming be ironed out through legislative committee hearings over the next 10 months. But a lawmaker said new legislation should not be considered before the resolution of a pending federal court trespass case.

Members of the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee will decide whether to recommend that the Legislature studies trespass before next year’s legislative session. But at least one representative is skeptical of taking up trespass as a broad interim topic.

“I like to be proactive,” Rep. Cyrus Western (R-Big Horn), a hunter who works in commercial real estate, told the committee, “but I think in this situation it might be a little bit better to be reactive, see how the courts react, what kind of rulings are made and then go from there.”

In coming months a federal court could resolve one trespass issue arising in Carbon County where ranch owner Fred Eshelman has sued four Missouri hunters alleging $9.39 million in damages. Eshelman claims they trespassed when they corner-crossed — stepped from one piece of public land to another and passed through the airspace above his property without setting foot on his land.

The four hunters say they have a right to access and hunt the public land. They and others believe ranch and property owners like Eshelman are using the corner-crossing trespass threat to co-opt public land for their exclusive use, including hunting.

But a decision in that suit, if the case runs its course, could be narrowly focused, said Sabrina King, a lobbyist for BHA. Furthermore, the Legislature has approached the topic with lethargy, she said, taking almost 20 years to codify a Wyoming attorney general’s opinion on one small aspect of corner crossing.

“People are sick of waiting,” King told WyoFile. “We’re not asking for permission [from the Legislature] to talk about it anymore.”

20 YEARS IN THE MAKING

At its just-completed session, lawmakers passed a bill codifying a 2004 attorney general’s opinion that game wardens can’t cite hunters for corner crossing. Gov. Mark signed Senate File 56 – Prohibiting travel across private land for hunting purposes last week to hunters’ approval.

Although the law is now part of game and hunting statutes, it does not prohibit county prosecutors, sheriffs or other law-enforcement officers from citing trespassers, including hunters, in corner-crossing cases, King said. So the legality of corner crossing itself remains unsettled. The uncertain threat of prosecution keeps many public-land users in Wyoming from corner crossing to access some 2.4 million acres of federal and state property.

Stock growers, influential in Cheyenne, have been firmly against condoning corner crossing. Senate File 180 – Corner crossing-trespass exception, a measure sponsored by Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie), but which lacked a Republican co-sponsor, died in the Senate this year. That’s despite King’s observation that corner crossing appears to be at the forefront of trespass conversations.

“Regardless of what you’re talking about, corner crossing comes up,” she told the TRW committee. “People want to talk about it. People have a lot of questions about public access.”

Corner-crossing is not the only trespass item that interim legislative hearings could consider, Josh Metten, field manager with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, told the committee. He pointed to the bipartisan federal Modernizing Access to Our Public Lands Act that seeks to identify easements, rights of way and other access avenues and boundaries relating to recreation on federal lands.

“That’s one example of something that can come out of this,” he said.

Rep. Western, however, admonished against a sweeping review. He would, he said, entertain focused investigations like how to boost Game and Fish’s Access Yes initiative to increase hunters’ use of what the department calls “private or inaccessible land.”

That doesn’t address the larger public-land issue, which King described as involving more than 8,000 Wyoming property corners and 1,200 landowners.

The TRW committee did not decide last week what it would propose for interim study. It is expected to recommend topics in a letter to the Legislature’s Management Council, which meets March 23 to finalize interim study priorities.

GOING IT ALONE

BHA will go it alone if the Legislature won’t join in, King said. “We’re not going to wait 20 years to have the conversation,” she said, adding that most hunters support private property rights and want clarity on trespass rules.

Hunters were likely relieved that one trespassing bill failed last month. A Senate committee killed Rep. Barry Crago’s (R-Buffalo) House Bill 126 – Trespass-removal of trespass that would have legalized the use of physical force to eject a perceived trespasser from private property.

Hunters testified against it, saying it would have inflamed tensions in potential boundary and trespass disagreements. King, among others, worried about “the escalation of conflict in the field” if the bill had become law.

In a different move that was favorable to hunters, lawmakers passed a bill that makes it illegal to post no-trespassing signs on public land. House Bill 147 – Unlawful trespass signage-taking of wildlife, brought by Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie), is a game and wildlife law applicable to hunting, not hiking or other activities.

It applies to landowners who “knowingly” place or maintain false signs, essentially requiring a game warden to notify the owner that a sign is wrongly placed.

Corner-crossing rose in the public consciousness with the Carbon County trespass case, which started with criminal charges against the four Missouri men. A six-person jury last year found the hunters not guilty, but the separate civil case endures.

Corner-crossing conflicts grow largely from the checkerboard pattern of land ownership created through railroad land grants in the 1800s. The patchwork pattern of alternating one-mile squares extends across most of southern Wyoming for 20 miles on either side of the Union Pacific Railroad line.

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