SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Four hunters from Missouri who were being sued for trespassing by a Wyoming hunter are now in the clear after a judge ruled in their favor.

Bradley H. Cape, Zachary M. Smith, John W. Slowensky and Phillip G. Yeomans were all being sued for “corner-crossing” on private property.

The four Missouri hunters traveled to Wyoming to hunt in 2020 and 2021. The first year resulted in a private property owner becoming disgruntled. When they returned the second year, the situation escalated.

The argument

The section of Wyoming the men visited and much of the state and surrounding area is parceled in a checkerboard pattern. The men camped on public Bureau of Land Management property and hunted only within BLM land.

However, to cross over into a different BLM parcel, one had to traverse a corner. In the disputed sections, BLM parcels touch only at corners of the square parcels while private property parcels owned by the plaintiff did the same at the other corners, with all four corners meeting at a government-installed survey marker.

The issue is that technically, one cannot move from one corner of BLM land to another without at least entering the airspace of all four parcels that meet at that point.

“The points of contact at each corner meet at an infinitely small point,” the court documents read.

This is commonly referred to as “corner-crossing” and has been the subject of many cases where land is divided in this checkerboard pattern.

The four hunters were caught corner-crossing by the owner of the private land on either side of the BLM land they were hunting on.

The 2022 hunting trip

Cape, Smith and Yeomans traveled from Missouri to hunt big game on Elk Mountain in Carbon County, Wyoming. They each had licenses and tags to do so. To get to where they were going, they traveled on public roads. After setting up camp, they began to travel through BLM land in search of game.

At one of the four-corner points, they came across two steel posts with “No Trespassing” signs that were connected by a chain, padlock and wire. There was no obstruction on either side of the post, but the posts were planted on private property. The same ranch owner owned both sides.

The men grabbed onto one of the posts and swung themselves around it, planting their feet only on BLM ground. However, they passed through the airspace of the rancher’s property by doing so. They continued their hunt and at other corners were able to simply step over the survey marker.

Somehow, the rancher or his employees observed them moving past the posts or surmised they had done so simply because there was no other way. The rancher had a habit of telling their employees to confront suspected trespassers — even if they were found on public land. If they do not leave, they have law enforcement called on them.

The hunters were confronted and refused to leave the public lands. They continued their trip and returned home.

The 2021 hunting trip

In 2021, all four defendants took the hunting trip to the same public lands. Again, the hunters found the chained-together steel posts. This time, they had a small steel A-frame ladder that Cape had built specifically to cross above the posts. However, they were still technically in the rancher’s airspace and it wasn’t enough to keep the rancher happy.

The rancher and one of his employees confronted the hunter and told them to leave the public lands. The rancher and employee watched the hunters and drove motorized vehicles on public lands to scare away any game. The rancher contacted the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which refused to do anything. He then contacted the sheriff’s office, which refused to do anything. He ended up contacting a local prosecuting attorney, who agreed to take the case.

The attorney got the sheriff’s office to write citations for criminal trespassing to each of the hunters. The hunting trip was cut short.

The decision

In short, the court ruled in favor of the defendants because they did not cause any damage to the plaintiff’s land. The hunters entering the plaintiff’s land’s airspace did not interfere with the use of or cause damage to the private land. The court found that the rancher cannot seek damages while excluding people from public lands.

In addition, the Wyoming governor signed into law amendments to trespassing law that states prohibited “travel through or return across” private land requiring someone to physically touch or drive on the surface of private property. Though these amendments take effect July 1, 2023, they were used to strike down the plaintiff’s case.

In regards to the hunters holding onto the rancher’s metal post in 2020, it was found that they were not at fault, as the rancher’s chain crossed across public lands and obstruct access to the public lands.