By Ellen Fike and Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily
Four hunters from Missouri were found not guilty on Friday afternoon by a Carbon County jury of all criminal trespassing charges filed against them for allegedly crossing into the airspace of a private ranch.
The clerk for circuit court in Carbon County confirmed to Cowboy State Daily hunters Bradley Cape, Zachary Smith, Phillip Yoemans and John Slowensky were found not guilty of criminal trespass and other charges by a 6-member jury. The charges were filed in connection with allegations the hunters crossed the airspace of the Iron Bar Ranch while moving from one parcel of public land to another.
Wyoming’s “checkerboard” pattern of public and private land ownership often creates situations where public and private lands share a common corner, with the private land parcels sitting diagonally from each other.
The Missouri hunters used a ladder-like device to cross from one public parcel to another without touching Iron Bar’s property. However, Iron Bar alleged the four violated the airspace above the private land.
Jurors deliberated briefly before returning a verdict of not guilty.
Noted Wyoming outdoorsman Paul Ulrich told Cowboy State Daily on Friday that the jury’s decision was a landmark ruling.
“We, as hunters and fisherman, in Wyoming in particular, rely on full and good access to public lands,” he said. “If this decision helps clarify and increase legal access, it’s a good thing for all of us that enjoy the outdoors.”
The verdict was also praised by the Wyoming chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, which had launched a fundraiser to help the men cover their legal costs.
“Today the court made its decision, and Wyoming BHA believes justice has been served,” the organization said in a prepared statement. “We are happy for these hunters, and we hope we can avoid future scenarios of criminal prosecution of the public for attempting to access their public lands and waters.
“This isn’t a precedent-setting decision, but it is a step forward,” BHA officials continued. “We are committed to advancing this conversation and we hope we can find solutions that result in increased public access while respecting the property rights and concerns of all.”
The chapter launched a GoFundMe campaign in support of the hunters earlier this year, raising more than $70,000 as of Friday. The money will go toward the hunters’ legal expenses and if there is any money left over once the legal matters are resolved, the chapter will donate the remainder to Wyoming’s Access Yes program, which helps hunters, trappers and anglers access privately-held lands.
In addition to the criminal action settled Friday, Iron Bar has filed a lawsuit against the four hunters, seeking damages for trespassing. The lawsuit was originally filed in state district court in Carbon County, but was moved to U.S. District Court, where proceedings continue.