1 Big Thing: Judge rules in favor of corner-crossing hunters

  1. A federal judge in Wyoming ruled in favor of four elk hunters sued for trespass when they stepped from the corner of one public land parcel to another, intruding on the “airspace” of the private land on each side.  This case potentially impacts over 8 million acres of “corner locked” public lands in the western U.S.

In 2021, four Missouri men were hunting elk on Bureau of Land Management public lands in Wyoming.  One parcel of BLM land touches another at the corner, much like a checkerboard, with private land in between the public squares.  The four men used a step ladder to cross from one BLM parcel to the other.  Although they did not set foot on the private land, the landowner sued the four hunters, alleging that they caused more than $7 million in damages for trespassing on the “airspace” above the land.

The judge found that “corner crossing on foot in the checkerboard pattern of land ownership, without physically, contacting private land and, without causing damage to private property does not constitute an unlawful trespass.”  He acknowledged that “the private landowner is entitled to protect privately owned land from intrusion to the surface and privately owned property from damage,” but held that a private landowner’s property rights are “not boundless.”  Rather, a private landowner “must suffer the temporary incursion into a minimal portion of its airspace while the corner crosser must take pains to avoid touching private land or otherwise disturbing private property.”  The judge’s ruling was based in part on state law and in consideration of the 1885 Unlawful Inclosures Act, which prevents private individuals from putting up fences on public lands.  According to the judge, “the public is entitled its reasonable way of passage to access public land.”

This ruling potentially opens millions of acres of land by allowing users with sophisticated GPS to step from the corner of one public parcel into the next.  Of course, the ruling is not final until the landowner determines whether to appeal.

SCI’s Continuing Legal Education program in February 2023 included a presentation on this interesting case, and other hot topics in wildlife law.  SCI’s next CLE program will be in January 2024 during SCI’s annual Convention.