By Mark Heinz, outdoors reporter
Game wardens would have more authority to ticket trespassers under a draft bill currently before the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee.
At issue is whether Wyoming game wardens should have more leeway in cases that fall under sheriffs’ jurisdiction under current law. The draft bill would give wardens the authority to ticket people who pass through private property to hunt, fish, trap or collect shed horns and antlers.
That could give game wardens the authority to write trespassing tickets in cases for which they currently have to wait for a sheriff’s deputy, Game and Fish chief game warden Rick King told the committee Tuesday.
Trespassing is one of the most common violations wardens deal with, he said during the committee’s meeting in Casper.
“We deal with it (trespassing) hundreds of times a year. It’s typically number two on our top 10 list of violations,” he said.
Fishing without a license was the number one documented violation last year, at 302 instances, according to the Game and Fish annual law enforcement report for 2021. Trespassing came in second, at 337.
Different Charges, Different Agencies
Under Wyoming law, hunters are responsible for knowing whether they’ve crossed on to private property without a landowner’s permission. That holds regardless of whether the owner has posted “keep out” signs on the land or told the hunters that they’re trespassing.
That gives game wardens the authority cite hunters who – wittingly or not – wander on to private property while actively hunting. That rule extends to anglers, trappers and shed horn and antler collectors.
However, criminal trespass is a different matter, King said. As the law stands, there must be reasonable evidence that a trespasser wantonly ignored “no trespassing” postings or a landowner’s or land manager’s verbal warning to leave the property.
Game wardens currently aren’t allowed to cite those sorts of cases if the suspects aren’t actively engaged in hunting or the other activities, King said. So, when that happens, the warden must call a sheriff’s deputy to come investigate the matter and possibly issue a ticket. And in some of Wyoming’s remote areas, that can take a long time.
The draft bill would streamline to process, he said. If a warden was informed about, or witnessed, people crossing private property without permission with the intent to hunt, fish, trap or recover shed horns and antlers on adjacent public land, then that warden could issue a trespassing ticket without having to wait for a deputy.
Some committee members questioned whether the bill as drafted is too broad. It was also noted that more input is needed from other sources, such as hunters and sheriffs. The committee decided to hold the matter until its next meeting; scheduled for Nov. 10-11 in Cheyenne.
One point of contention was whether having items such as fishing tackle or a firearm in a vehicle or on one’s person would be proof enough that somebody was, indeed, crossing the private property with the intent to hunt, fish, trap or collect shed horns and antlers.
“We have a large portion of people in Wyoming, including myself, who frequently have fishing gear or a gun in our vehicles,” said committee member Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie.
Other members pointed out the presence of gear could be used as element of a case that involved other indications that a person was trespassing to hunt or fish, such as their own statements, or the statements wardens could get from landowners.
Tie-In With A ‘Corner Crossing’ Case?
The draft bill’s language should also be clarified regarding air space above property, Jim Magagna told the committee during public comment. He’s the executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.
As it’s worded, the draft states people would have to be physically touching the property, or driving directly across it, in order to be liable for trespass, he said. Including wording about “reasonable space above the land” would strengthen property owners’ rights, he said.
At least “in the court of public opinion” the draft bill as worded would be perceived as not supporting property rights strongly enough, he said.
However, the matter of air space might hinge on a “corner crossing” case pending in U.S. District Court, said committee member Sen. John Kolb, R-Rock Springs.
“We can’t deal with air space right now, it’s in federal court,” he said.
He was referring to a case stemming from criminal trespassing charges filed against Missouri hunters Bradly Cape, Zachary Smith, Phillip Yoemens and John Slowensky.
They were accused of trespassing on Iron Bar Ranch land near Elk Mountain while attempting to cross from one corner of public land onto another section of public land in September 2021.
A Carbon County jury later found them innocent of those charges.
Iron Bar Holdings, LLC and its owner, Fred Eshelman of North Carolina, subsequently filed a civil lawsuit against the hunters, claiming they had violated the ranch’s air space when they used a ladder-like device to cross a fence from one piece of public land to another at a checker-boarded property lines
The trial for that lawsuit is scheduled to start June 26, 2023 in Casper.