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Corner-crossing bill emerges as G&F commissioner pulls license donation

A photograph purporting to show the corner in question. (GoFundMe)

By hyperlinked author, WyoFile

Lawmakers on Monday filed a bill that would broaden the definition of hunter trespass as a closely watched court case involving corner crossing created new waves across the state.

HB0103 – Prohibit travel across private land for hunting purposes would amend existing hunter trespass laws that a Wyoming attorney general has stated may not apply to corner crossing.

Corner crossing involves stepping from one piece of public land to another where the public parcels share a four-way corner with two private parcels. Where such ownership patterns exist it is possible to step over the common corner without setting foot on private land.

Four hunters who were charged with criminal trespass — not hunter trespass — in Carbon County for corner crossing have pleaded not guilty and asked that their cases be dismissed. They claim they never touched private property when they used a fence ladder to move from one section of public land to another.

Strict property-rights defenders say even passing through the airspace above private property — which is a physical requirement of corner crossing — amounts to trespass even if private ground is not touched.

The bill would bolster that position by amending the definition of hunter trespass, which now states only that “no person shall enter upon” private property. The amendment would add a clause so the statute reads “no person shall enter upon or travel through” private property without permission.

Rep. Barry Crago (R-Buffalo) is the lead sponsor. Reps. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette), Aaron Clausen (R-Douglas), Jamie Flitner (R-Greybull), Mike Greear (R-Worland), Chip Neiman (R-Hulett), Ember Oakley (R-Riverton) and Tom Walters (R-Casper) plus Sens. Brian Boner (R-Douglas), Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) and Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) are co-sponsors.

Commissioner’s license

Crago filed his bill as another Buffalo resident, Game and Fish Commission President Peter Dube, acknowledged that he withdrew a promised big game license he had said would go to Wyoming Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. The hunters’ group had planned to auction it. Wyoming BHA said it will track the bill and review “its vast potential legal implications on public hunting and fishing access through private lands across Wyoming.”

Peter Dube (WG&F)

Dube’s change of heart came after he learned that the group had become involved in the Carbon County case.

Wyoming BHA launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the defense of the four Missouri hunters charged with criminal trespass last fall. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers said money raised from the auction of a commissioner’s license would have been used for wildlife projects or hunter access, not on the trespassing case.

But Dube said he wanted to keep the issue at arm’s length.

“I just did not want to be possibly associated siding one way or another on that,” Dube said. “That’s the basis [on  which] I told them I wouldn’t do it.”

Dube’s action upset leadership of the hunters’ advocacy group, which last year raised $48,720 from the auction of a commissioner’s license to improve access to the Raymond Mountain area, site of a wildlife-rich 33,000-acre BLM wilderness study area near Cokeville.

“I’m disappointed,” said Buzz Hettick, chairman of the group’s Wyoming chapter. “We had projects that we were going to fund with that money that will no longer be funded this year.”

Wyoming BHA does not support trespass, board member Pete Kassab said.

“What we do support is due process,” Kassab said.

“When we spoke to the hunters, it became very clear this needed to be litigated,” Kassab said, “there needed to be exposure about corner crossing.” Corner crossing remains a “gray legal area” he said.

AG opinion

A Wyoming attorney general’s opinion from 2004 states that corner crossing may not be a game-law infraction. A hunting trespass violation requires a person “to hunt or intend to hunt on private property without permission,” the opinion states. “‘Corner crossing,’ however, may be a criminal trespass,” the opinion reads.

Criminal trespass carries a penalty of up to $750 and six months in jail upon conviction. Hunting trespass carries penalties of up to a $1,000 fine, six months imprisonment and up to three years suspension of license privileges.

“Wyoming BHA supports the prosecution of people who knowingly and willfully trespass and/or cause damage to private lands,” a position paper the group’s board adopted in January states.

A screenshot from OnX Maps of the mixed-ownership acreage traversed by the defendants. (Screenshot/OnX Maps)

In the case at issue, “Wyoming BHA believes the factual circumstances will show that the four hunters did not commit criminal trespass,” the paper states. Corner crossing “is neither explicitly legal nor explicitly illegal in the State of Wyoming.”

Wyoming BHA acknowledges private landowner rights, including rights “to grant or deny permission to access their property,” the paper states. But it opposes attempts to block access to public property, a key issue in corner crossing.

Corner crossing allows persons to access thousands of acres of public land in Wyoming and more than a million across the West. Prohibiting it landlocks those public lands and effectively makes them the exclusive reserve of neighboring landowners.

“You cannot block access to public ground” in corner-crossing and possibly other situations, Kassab said. Federal laws form the foundations of that position.

“Wyoming BHA supports the four hunters in their right to due process: a right so important and fundamental that it is the only command listed twice in the United States Constitution,” the group stated.

Wyoming BHA also opined on potential outcomes of the Carbon County case.

“We believe a ‘guilty’ determination in this case would have a direct negative impact to hunters’, anglers’, and trappers’ ability to access our public lands,” the paper states. “We believe a ‘not guilty’ determination will not set a precedent, i.e. have a legally binding effect, but will nonetheless add a decision to the legal record that supports the argument that corner crossing does not constitute criminal trespass.”

The hunters said they never set foot on or touched private property and were told by a Game and Fish officer and one Carbon County sheriff’s deputy that what they were doing was not illegal.

The just-introduced bill would change the hunter-trespass law, possibly enabling Game and Fish officers a basis on which to charge corner-crossing hunters. The bill proposes a penalty of up to $1,000 and six months in jail for a person found guilty.

In the Carbon County case, a second sheriff’s deputy cited the men who claimed he did so after the manager of the Elk Mountain Ranch made repeated complaints to authorities.

Coveted award

Dube, a former outfitter and a rancher and landowner in Johnson County, said he gets on the order of 100 requests for commissioner’s licenses a year. Each of the seven commissioners may award up to eight licenses, which must go to nonprofit organizations.

“It’s very popular,” Dube said of the program. “The very first phone call I got [upon becoming commissioner] was asking for a commissioner’s license.

“I try to give as many as possible to local organizations in the district I represent,” he said.

Wyoming BHA’s decision to become involved in the corner crossing case raised a new issue, Dube said.

“I struggled with what to do,” he said. “I want to remain neutral,” in what he sees as a legal case, he said.

“When this came up, it put me in a quandary,” Dube said. A license awarded to Wyoming BHA, “it could be misconstrued,” he said, possibly as support for corner crossing, trespass or the hunters themselves.

“I thought the game plan had changed on me,” Dube said. “I just did not want the appearance of supporting or not supporting this issue.”

Asked if he thinks corner crossing is legal, Dube said, “I remain neutral on that subject.”

Backcountry hunters stay course

Wyoming BHA said it will maintain its positions despite the loss of Dube’s license.

“Regardless of the outcome of this or other court cases, Wyoming BHA will not promote corner crossing to users until reasonable measures are taken to limit resource degradation and trespass,” the group’s position states. Wyoming BHA encourages hunters to build relationships with landowners and states that the group supports collaboration among stakeholders to solve the issue.

That collaboration does not mean a person or group should forgo the right to due process.

“[T]his all occurred because one private landowner decided to press charges against these hunters, who went out of their way to corner cross in a legally permissible manner,” the group’s position paper states. “The outcome of these legal proceedings can only stand to inform and thus improve statewide problem-solving on this issue, which is one of many reasons we feel it imperative to not limit the scope of the legal proceedings to the financial resources of the defendants.”

Wyoming BHA also weighed in on harassment allegations the four hunters made against the manager of the Elk Mountain Ranch who complained they were trespassing.

“Wyoming BHA supports prosecution of those who interfere with or impede the lawful use of public land, inclusive of hunter harassment,” the group said. Hunter harassment is an infraction punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 on the first offense. Aggrieved parties also can bring a civil suit against a person or group for harassment, which can claim punitive damages as well as actual costs.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.