The corner crossing battle in Wyoming seems to be over, and public land hunters, at least for now, have won. Today the District Court of Wyoming found that it’s legal to cross from one corner of public land to another corner of public land, while stepping through private airspace.
The ruling comes after four hunters crossed a corner of the Elk Mountain Ranch, which is held by Iron Bar Holdings, managed by billionaire Fred Eshelman. Iron Bar Holdings brought criminal trespass charges (which the hunters beat last year), and filed a civil suit in federal court claiming that the trespassing diminished the ranch’s property value. The ranch claimed the men caused more than $7 million in damages.
Chief U.S. District Judge Scott W. Skavdahl ruled in favor of four hunters who crossed a corner of the Elk Mountain Ranch.
The Order states: “. . . the Court finds that where a person corner crosses on foot within the checkerboard from public land to public land without touching the surface of private land and without damaging private property, there is no liability for trespass.”
If you haven’t been following this case closely, corner crossing means walking from one corner of public land to another corner of public, crossing diagonally between corners of private land, without ever setting foot on private property. Phillip Yeomans, Bradly Cape, John Slowensky, and Zachary Smith, all of Missouri (and nicknamed the Missouri Four), used a small stepladder to cross from one parcel of public land to another while on a hunt in 2021 and in 2020.
The West is a checkerboard of public and private land. Andrew McKean
The fact that the hunters won the civil case will have broad implications for public land hunters in Wyoming.
“It was a pretty full throated endorsement of the principal that as long as you don’t touch private land or cause harm to private land in some way, then you have the right to cross corner-to-corner of public lands,” says Eric Hanson, an attorney who represented Backcountry Hunters and Anglers on their amicus brief in this litigation.
However, the ruling does not mean that corner crossing in every state is now legal. It’s also possible that other private landowners could bring corner crossing civil suits, Hanson says.
“This has to work its way up the chain of appeals before it becomes more binding,” Hanson says. “This is a big first step, but it’s not necessarily going to apply outside of Wyoming. The court was very careful to put this in just the context of the case, not a national context”
But still BHA and the public land hunters of Wyoming have reason to celebrate.
“Today was a win for the people, both in Wyoming and across the country,” says BHA president Land Tawny. “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. 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.”
Over course, the four hunters who have been battling these cases for years also have reason to celebrate.
“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 told WyoFile. Semerad says they “fully expect” an appeal.
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