Missouri hunters get a not guilty verdict for corner crossing, moving the issue of whether it’s illegal or not forward
Back in 2021, four Missouri hunters were charged for criminal trespassing while hunting on Bureau of Land Management land between Rawlins and Laramie. The owner of the Elk Mountain Ranch believed that the hunters violated his property rights along a four corner crossing. Wyoming Public Radio's Kamila Kudelska spoke with Wyofile reporter Angus Thuermer on how this trial is moving forward the issue of whether four corner crossing is illegal or not. Thuermer started by explaining what a four corner crossing is.
Angus Thuermer: So, if you can envision a checkerboard or a chessboard, you've got black squares, and you've got either red squares or white squares. Let's say the black squares are the public property. You step diagonally from one black square to another black square, without putting your foot on the private property that's, let's say, red. The question arises whether one is trespassing when one steps from public land to public land without touching private land.
Kamila Kudelska: So regarding the four Missouri hunters, what specifically did they do, and how were they charged in regard to four corner crossing?
AT: Well, in 2020 they went to the area of Elk Mountain and Elk Mountain Ranch, and they camped on public land and they corner crossed from BLM land to BLM land. In 2021, they went back. Between the time they had first gone, and 2021, the owner of the Elk Mountain Ranch - which kind of blocks access to thousands of acres of public property unless you corner cross - the owner had his property manager erect a fence post on the private squares so that it would be difficult to step from public property to public property. And the four hunters from Missouri who had been there, three of them were there in 2020, came back with a ladder that was designed [specially]. So you put two feet of the ladder on the one public square, and you put two feet of the ladder on the other public square. And they were able to climb over the two fence posts, again, without touching private land. The sheriff's deputies were called and there was a great deal of discussion. The Game and Fish Warden eventually wrote a report. And it went to the Carbon County attorney who asked that a deputy cite the four hunters in 2021 for criminal trespass.
KK: And so as I understand, the trial was last week and the verdict came down pretty quickly. So can you summarize as briefly as you can what happened during the trial? And what was the final verdict?
AT: The trial went on for basically all three days. The prosecution called, I think, about five witnesses, and then a cross examination by some of the six attorneys that the defendants had. And the defendants never took the stand. The case went to the jury, which returned a verdict in fewer than two hours. And the result was not guilty on all counts. And the jurors after they were dismissed did not talk to me and another reporter who was there. So we don't have an idea of why they reached the not guilty conclusion.
KK: What does this not guilty verdict potentially mean for four corner crossing and trespassing potentially on private land as a hunter?
AT: We're uncertain. At this point, we, the general public, is uncertain, because just before the trial got underway, three of the hunters who had been there in 2020, were served with a summons requiring them to plea to a similar set of charges that are based on their 2020 visit to the same area and the same corner. So, right now there is a court precedent in Wyoming regarding corner crossing, and whether other county attorneys look at this and say, 'Well this has been decided here and I'm not going to press it or not,' I don't know. We don't know what will happen with these new charges. I'm not certain that it creates much of a precedent. There are 2.4 million acres in Wyoming, according to the latest calculation, [of] public land that are inaccessible. If corner crossing is illegal, there's 8.3 million acres throughout the West that are similarly landlocked. There's a civil case that's right now in federal court that could resolve the issue West-wide. Also, I'd like to observe that the Wyoming Legislature, the Joint Judiciary Committee, has set trespass as its number one priority for discussion before the next legislative session in early 2023. And this committee will examine the trespass statutes, and no doubt will consider corner crossing and this case.
KK: It seems like a lot of people were pretty fascinated by this case in Wyoming. I mean, there's a lot of hunters in Wyoming. And I wonder if you can maybe explain why you think this case grabs so much attention in the state?
AT: Well, there's the conflict or confluence of two long-held Wyoming values and one is respect for private property and private property rights. And the other is the desire to recreate on our public lands, 48 percent of which are owned by all the people of the United States. So there's two very strong sets of opinions out there, that all come together and conflict right at this sort of corner crossing intersection.