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Ranch owner: No $7M claim if judge rules corner-crossers trespassed

At Elk Mountain Ranch, Eshelman also says GPS data shows that a hunter marked a waypoint on his property and was not just passing through airspace.

A ranch gate at Elk Mountain. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

The ranch owner suing hunters for trespassing through his airspace to access public land says he would drop his damage claim of some $7.75 million if a judge rules in his favor in a landmark corner-crossing case.

Elk Mountain Ranch owner Fred Eshelman made that statement through attorneys in a filing in federal court in Casper on Wednesday. He has sued four Missouri hunters for stepping over a corner of his 22,045-acre ranch without setting foot on his land.

“[P]ursuit of money damages against the individual Defendants in this case detracts from important legal issues,” Eshelman’s new filing states. “[I]f the Court rules in favor of [Eshelman], declares the Defendants’ actions as being actionable trespass, and restrains further trespass, then [Eshelman] will withdraw money damage claims … in the interest of justice and judicial economy.”

The hunters say they never touched Elk Mountain Ranch ground as they stepped from one piece of public land to another in an area of checkerboard-pattern land ownership in Carbon County. The Missourians believe the airspace above such four-corner intersections is shared with the public and that federal laws bar Eshelman from blocking public passage across them, according to court filings.

Eshelman also asserted Wednesday, apparently for the first time, that one of the hunters actually set foot on ranch land. The ranch owner’s legal team used coordinates subpoenaed from the onX company that makes the GPS hunting map app to make the claim.

In a flurry of court filings Thursday, attorneys began arguing how to deal with that new assertion.

Eshelman, a wealthy North Carolina resident, has claimed that if corner crossing were permitted, the resulting public access to public land would devalue his 22,045-acre ranch by some 25% to 30%. That would amount to between $7.75 million and $9.4 million, according to WyoFile calculations made from his civil complaint and associated documents.

New claim

In a skirmish that’s gone on for 2 1/2 years, the Missouri men have maintained that they never touched Elk Mountain Ranch land and therefore did not trespass.

In both 2020 and 2021 the hunters traveled on a public road to public land administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management where they camped. They then hiked to a checkerboard corner adjacent to another public land section which they crossed onto.

By using the onX GPS map and hunting app on cell phones, they located other checkerboard corner survey monuments and stepped over them. By that method, the men hunted some 3,000 acres of public land that could only be reached by corner crossing, trespassing or with Eshelman’s permission.

Until this week, Eshelman wanted Wyoming’s Chief U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl to declare the hunters trespassers, then send the matter to a jury that would only determine damages. Now he would be satisfied if the judge only rules that corner crossing is trespassing and “restrains further trespass.”

Both parties want Skavdahl to make a summary judgment, they said in motions. The hunters want Skavdahl to dismiss the civil lawsuit entirely.

Among other arguments, hunters say a federal law prohibits Eshelman from keeping the public off public land and that law supersedes Wyoming property and trespass statutes that might indicate otherwise. Both sides claim that historical and legal precedents and practices back their cases.

The new claim about hunter Smith states that he marked a place he stood in 2020 in the onX program on his cell phone. Eshelman’s team obtained data from onX and ran the coordinates through the onX program and another one, according to an affidavit.

“Mr. Smith marked a waypoint at geographic coordinates that place him on real property, owned by [Eshelman’s] Iron Bar Holdings, LLC,” the affidavit states. The waypoint “proves he trespassed,” Eshelman’s latest filings state.

Smith denied on Thursday that he ever set foot on Elk Mountain Ranch land, according to a court declaration.

The hunters had at least two separate onX programs, according to court filings, including the one used by Smith. They used the program to mark several places they hunted and hiked, including spots near the common corners they crossed and places where they killed elk or deer.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.