The owner of Elk Mountain Ranch in Wyoming is claiming over $7 million in damages after four Missouri hunters corner-crossed into the airspace of his property last year.
In disclosure documents obtained by WyoFile, an attorney for Iron Bar Holdings LLC, the official owner of the ranch, alleges damages of between $3.1 million and $7.75 million. Attorney Gregory Weisz signed the documents on August 29 and sent them to the individuals involved in the case, according to the outlet.
“[This disclosure] says things that have been unsaid for a long time,” Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), told MeatEater. “What they are saying is that they have the sole right to that public land and that if we the people have access to it, that diminishes the value of their ranch. That has not been said publicly, really ever.”
The hunters never set foot on the ranch’s property, which is owned by North Carolina businessman Fredric Eshelman. Instead, they used a ladder to cross between one block of public land to another at the corner where the blocks meet. They were cleared of criminal trespass charges in April, but a separate civil case is still before the U.S. District Court for Wyoming.
In that case, Eshelman and his attorneys are claiming as much as $7.75 million in damages based on a possible 10-25% devaluation of the ranch. A decision to legalize corner crossing could devalue a ranch “by the fact it’s no longer closed property—it’s open to public crossing,” Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, told WyoFile.
The 22,042-acre property, along with the buildings, were appraised at $31.31 million in 2017.
MeatEater has not reviewed the disclosure statement, but experts say that as it appears on its face, Eshelman’s claim makes little legal sense.
“Damages in the context of a civil trespass have to be related to the actual trespass event. This damage claim doesn't necessarily relate to the alleged trespass,” David Willms told MeatEater. Willms is an attorney, hunter, senior director for Western Wildlife at the National Wildlife Federation, and former policy advisor to the Governor of Wyoming.
Eshelman’s damage claim would only come to fruition if the court found that there this is (and always has been) a legal right to access, Willms explained. A decision in the hunters’ favor could devalue Elk Mountain Ranch, and Willms does not necessarily take issue with the appraiser’s estimate.
However, such a decision would have nothing to do with the hunters or their actions on the day in question. In fact, if the court finds that corner crossing is legal, it would exonerate the hunters of civil trespass and Eshelman would no longer have a case.
If the court rules against the hunters and finds that they tresspassed, on the other hand, the damages must be directly related to the trespass event. Willms doesn’t see how momentarily crossing into the airspace of Elk Mountain Ranch could possibly devalue the ranch by 10-25%.
“Based on what’s in the public sphere and what I’ve seen, it’s going to be tough to prove any kind of actual damages,” Willms said.
In other words, Eshelman can’t have his cake and eat it, too. Either the hunters did trespass, in which case his damages are nothing close to $7.75 million; or, the hunters did not trespass, in which case there is no basis for awarding damages even if the ranch is devalued.
Willms speculates that the ranch’s lawyers may be claiming these damages to communicate to the judge the gravity of his decision. A federal case in favor of corner crossing could have sweeping implications for ranches across the West. There are currently about 8.3 million acres of corner-locked public land in 11 Western states, according to onX Maps. Opening those parcels to public access could devalue some of those ranches, and landowners like Eshelman are understandably concerned about the consequences of sudden public access.
Magagna told MeatEater that public land advocates should seek compromise rather than division with landowners. He does not believe the courts will rule in the hunters’ favor, but he does believe making a “major issue” out of this case is “going to harden more landowners against willingly granting access.”
While Tawney of BHA called Eshelman’s claims “the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” he believes there is a solution that works for both public land users and landowners.
“Let’s figure out how we can work with hunters and anglers to access public land without treading on private land,” he said. “Nobody wants to willfully trespass on private land or cause impacts to that land. Without private landowners who are good stewards, we wouldn’t have the populations we have today. At the same time, let’s recognize that they don’t own our public land. We have to have access to it.”
This case stems from a 2021 incident involving four Missouri hunters: Phillip Yeomans, Bradly Cape, John Slowensky and Zachary Smith. The group had been targeting elk and mule deer on public land in Carbon County, Wyoming, when they used a ladder to jump from one parcel of public land to another at the point where the parcels touched. They were charged with trespassing, and the case has received national attention for how it might implicate public land access. Click here to read a great summary of the case.