Despite an earlier “not guilty” verdict, corner crossing hunters will head back to court
The owner of a ranch in southeast Wyoming said four hunters who hopped onto public land near his property caused damages that could exceed $7 million. The disclosure statement was shared with Wyofile and is part of an upcoming civil suit against the hunters.
A large part of southern Wyoming is checkerboarded with private and public land so there’s lots of private and public lands meeting at corners. One of the questions of the upcoming civil case is whether a hunter crossing a corner from one public land to another trespassed on private property.
“We certainly believe in the principle that a landowner not only owns the surface, but owns a reasonable amount of the airspace above that surface,” said Jim Maggagna, the executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. “So a corner crossing, even in the manner that these particular parties did it, is a violation of that airspace.”
The Stock Growers Association filed an amicus brief with the federal court in Wyoming in the current civil case. Maggagna said part of the issue here is that it has been assumed for many years that corner crossing is not legal.
“It's never been firmly established either in statute or through litigation. And so as we looked at this case, we see it as an intentional effort to test the principle and get a determinative legal determination of whether or not corner crossing is legal,” he said.
For Maggagana, the ultimate verdict is high stakes. If deemed legal, he said private landowners could lose control over people trespassing on their private lands in order to access public lands. He said the decision to let people cross on their land to access public lands should be the landowners decision not the governments.
But public land advocates believe otherwise. Buzz Hettick, co-chair of Wyoming Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said the group is supporting the hunters' case because if corner crossing was made legal, access to 8.3 million acres of currently landlocked public land could open up.
“The main reason that hunters and fishermen either quit or never start hunting is because they just have no place to hunt and fish,” said Hettick. “So, anything we can do to increase that access is something that we're going to get involved in.”
Although Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is a pro-public lands group, Hettick said they also believe in private land rights.
“It's just that we believe that one property’s rights should not supersede the property rights of the other,” he said.
This same corner crossing case went through a criminal trial this past summer. The hunters were found not guilty. The civil case will likely take place sometime next summer.