Editor’s note: In October 2021, four Missourians hunting in Wyoming were cited for criminal trespass after “corner crossing” from one square parcel of public land to another across adjoining corners—presenting an opportunity to test an infamously murky legal issue. This article is the second installment of our coverage, and we’d encourage you to first read our more immersive discussion of the situation and its history, “Inside the Wyoming Corner Crossing Case Everyone is Watching.”
On Jan. 31, 2022, an attorney representing one of the hunters charged with criminal trespass submitted to the judge a 66-page motion to dismiss those charges against all four Missourians. Attorney Ryan Semerad of Casper made the case that Wyoming prosecuting these men would be in direct violation of a 137-year-old federal law that bans landowners from blocking access to public lands. He is representing Phillip Yeomans but has petitioned the court to consolidate all four cases.
This pre-trial motion document also lays out in public record the sequence of last fall’s events and depicts potential hunter harassment perpetrated by the ranch manager who was actively interfering with the hunters’ efforts to pursue elk and mule deer on checkerboarded BLM lands.
A Contentious Hunting Trip MeatEater previously obtained and published background information regarding the contested hunt, but the newly released court document enters the narrative into public record based on police reports and body camera footage from the law enforcement officers involved. It says the Missourians, Brad Cape, Phillip Yoemans, John Slowensky, and Zach Smith, arrived in Wyoming for their hunt on Sept. 26 and began crossing from one corner of public land to another using a stepladder they constructed for that very purpose, abiding by a longstanding attorney general’s opinion that this action was not illegal under fish and game statutes.
On Sept. 30, Officer Jake Miller of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department received a call from Steven Grende, who manages Elk Mountain Ranch, which covers most of the private checkerboard parcels in that area. Officer Miller drove up to the location and observed the hunters returning to their basecamp with elk meat, employing their stepladder to cross over a corner and the “No Trespassing” signs between two sections of BLM land.
Miller then spoke to the hunters, who showed him their path across only public lands using the onX app on one of their phones. Additionally, they said they sought out every corner marker of public land before crossing so as to not rely solely on onX. Miller then spoke to the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office, but neither he nor that department could conclude that any trespassing citation was warranted based on the available facts.
Miller and Sheriff’s Deputy Alex Bakken later met with Grende and had a conversation about corner crossing which was recorded on the officers’ body cameras.
“As far as Game and Fish trespass, I don’t really think I can do much with it,” Miller is quoted on the court document.
Deputy Bakken replied: “Not going to do anything for it. We will write it up. But the County Attorney will not prosecute for corner crossing.”
The hunters claim that the law enforcement officers later told them the same thing—that they were not breaking any laws.
But, in the conversation with Grende, the officers are recorded explaining to him the complex legal history of corner crossing, and that a “properly contested corner crossing case could go to the Wyoming Supreme Court and the high court could rule that corner crossing is legal,” according to court documents.
To this, Grende replied that such a decision would lead he and his employer, pharmaceuticals businessman Fred Eshelman, to “lock up” all the public parcels surrounded by their land, in violation of this hypothetical supreme court opinion.
“In other words,” Semerad wrote, “if corner crossing was deemed legal in Wyoming, then Elk Mountain Ranch, Mr. Grende, and, perhaps, others would take extra steps or efforts to obstruct, prevent, or block access to public lands adjacent to sections of private land or effectively ‘landlocked’ by sections of private lands.”
Grende, according to the court filing based on body cam footage, then went on to ask the officers if they “realize how much money my boss has.”
Three days later, Sergeant John Moore of the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office told Deputy Patrick Patterson that the Carbon County Attorney, Ashley Mayfield Davis, “wanted citations issued to four individuals that were corner crossing at the Elk Mountain Ranch,” according to a Sheriff’s report. Deputy Patterson complied. Yeomans, Cape, Smith, and Slowensky have pled not guilty to the criminal trespassing charges and are engaged in a vigorous defense supported by conservation groups and individual hunters nationwide.
Federal Supremacy “Federal law prohibits any person or group of persons from preventing Mr. Yeomans, his friends, or others from freely passing through public lands,” Semerad wrote in his motion to dismiss the charges. “Consequently, private landowners cannot prevent or obstruct free passage from one section of public land to another by claiming that the common corner where two private sections of land and two public sections of land meet is their exclusive property, land, or premises. Accordingly, the State of Wyoming cannot prosecute Mr. Yeomans or any other person for criminal trespass when Mr. Yeomans or another person travels from one section of public land to another section of public land at a common corner with two sections of private land.”
The idea that the landowner holds more control than the American public over the corner where two private and two public parcels meet in a checkerboard is foolish, Semerad suggests.
“This common corner is literally composed of equal parts private property and public property,” he states in the motion. “Consequently, the public retains, as both a matter of course and logic, a correspondingly equal right to use and access this common corner. Yet, Elk Mountain Ranch and other similarly situated private landowners claim the common corner as their exclusive property alone.”
In support of his claim that blocking access across such corners has long been illegal, Semerad points to the Unlawful Inclosures Act of 1885, which states: “No person, by force, threats, intimidation, or by any fencing or inclosing, or any other unlawful means, shall prevent or obstruct…any person from peaceably entering upon…any tract of public land subject to settlement or entry under the public land laws of the United States, or shall prevent or obstruct free passage or transit over or through the public lands.”
Under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, federal law supersedes state law when they conflict, Semerad wrote.
“Here, the State has effectively announced that a person may not freely pass from one section of public land to another adjoining section of public land where the two sections meet at a corner shared by sections of private land and the private landowners object to this ‘corner crossing,’” he wrote. “The State’s application of the law of criminal trespass just described cannot be reconciled with federal law that bans private individuals from obstructing or preventing free passage through public lands. Accordingly, the State’s application of Wyoming’s criminal trespass statute here is preempted by the federal law on point such that this prosecution ought to be dismissed.”
However, as discussed in MeatEater’s prior coverage of this issue, the idea of public lands for public use had yet to coalesce in the late 1880s. The original intent of the Unlawful Inclosures Act was to prevent land barons from barring homesteaders from reaching and claiming public parcels, as well as ranchers claiming exclusive control of public areas for grazing during the “Range Wars” of that era. The Inclosures Act is so old that modern spellcheckers flag it as a typo.
Elk Mountain Ranch may have unlawfully “enclosed” that first particular corner with chains and two No Trespassing signs, but the hunters were easily able to circumvent that with their custom stepladder. Then again, the judge may decide enclosure is not the issue here, instead focusing on the alleged trespass of the hunters’ shoulders through the private airspace of Elk Mountain Ranch—and whether that can be squared with similar exceptions for air and water travel.
Hunter Harassment Semerad, Yeoman’s attorney, included several documents salient to the case in his dismissal motion, including game warden and sheriff reports. Also copied for supporting documentation at the end of the legal paper are the hand-written testimonies from each of the four hunters, requested by WGFD Officer Miller, regarding the ranch manager and his staff’s aggressive behavior toward them.
They describe the ranch manager, Steve Grende, driving all over the ranch looking for them after discovering their camp on the first day. The Missourians recognized him from confrontations they all had the year prior. They spent four nights up on the mountain and killed an elk. Two sentries were posted near the road to observe the hunters’ return to basecamp.
After the camp meeting with WGFD and Carbon County Sherriff’s deputies described above, at which the hunters were told they’d done nothing wrong, they went back up into the public land checkerboard using the same path as before.
“The next morning we went back up the [mountain] for another hunt and had four different vehicles watching us,” Brad Cape, one of the hunters charged with trespassing, hand-wrote in his testimony. “We were glassing these deer when a [side-by-side] with two people drove towards us. They could plainly see we were all wearing orange and hunting on public land. They drove extremely slow and even stopped and turned off the engine while staring at us. They never said anything and after a while drove away.”
They killed one of the mule deer that day and an elk the next. “We were going up [the] mountain to pack my elk when Steve came driving extremely fast towards [us] across BLM land,” Cape wrote. “He slams on his brakes and throws his hands up and says ‘WTF?’ I tell him we’re going with permission from Warden Miller to hunt and retrieve elk. He says no you’re not and tells me to return to my camp. I tell him he has no authority to order me. I tell him we are on public land, legally hunting with permission from the game warden and we proceed on. Steve then turns around and follows us, staying right behind us for ½ mile. Him following us and trying to intimidate us finally gets to me. I wave him forward. I tell him we are legal hunters on public land and he is harassing us and that is illegal. He says he is hunting. We question him about not wearing orange and that it’s illegal to hunt from a vehicle and we proceed.”
Few big game hunters are likely to enjoy motor vehicles following in close proximity while they search for deer and elk. WGFD Officer Miller asked each of the Missourians for statements about these alleged hunter harassment situations, but it remains to be seen whether that will come to bear in their trespassing case or another separate proceeding.
Wyoming’s statute for hunter harassment states: “No person shall with the intent to prevent or hinder the lawful taking of any wildlife: (i) Interfere with the lawful taking of or the process of lawfully taking any wildlife; (ii) Engage in any activity intended to threaten or otherwise affect the behavior of any wildlife…Any person failing to obey an order of any peace officer to immediately desist from conduct in violation of subsection (a) of this section is guilty of a high misdemeanor.” Any company or group that solicits or orders its members or others to violate this statute can be fined up to $10,000 for a first offense and up to $50,000 for each subsequent offense.
Conclusion The State of Wyoming, plaintiff in this case, now has the opportunity to respond to this motion, which will eventually lead to a hearing and the judge issuing a decision on it. Those familiar with the process don’t expect the dismissal with prejudice requested (meaning the case couldn’t be brought again), but it remains posssible the judge could throw out the case and dismiss charges against the hunters. But if the motion is denied, it will go to trial. Barring a settlement or plea deal, this issue seems likely to eventually wind up in the Wyoming Supreme Court.
Still, some Wyomingites are concerned that a ruling in favor of these non-resident hunters could spur action in the legislature to codify corner crossing as illegal. The current makeup of that body suggests some likelihood of such a bill succeeding.
No one without a crystal ball can say what will happen next with this intricate issue. Many hunters are just happy to see corner crossing reenter the arena of public discussion so that the public might someday find legal certainty around access to these millions of acres of public lands.