Hunters in trespass case allege harassment

Four hunters challenging criminal trespass charges in a corner-crossing case in Carbon County allege the operators of the Elk Mountain Ranch illegally harassed them while they were hunting and camping on public land.

The four Missouri men signed statements for a Wyoming Game and Fish officer who opened a law enforcement case and forwarded the complaints to the Carbon County attorney for review, according to court documents. Game and Fish case officer Jake Miller collected 12 signed pages on Oct. 15 that alleged “an abhorrent amount of hunter harassment” while the group spent about nine days hunting on BLM and/or state property near the ranch.

The dustup came as the men, camped on BLM land, used a ladder to climb over a fence-like obstacle at a four-corner checkerboard intersection of public and private land. The men said they never set foot on private land as they crossed kitty-corner from one public parcel to another to hunt on public land.

Nevertheless, a Carbon County sheriff’s deputy cited Phillip G. Yeomans, Bradly H. Cape, John W. Slowensky and Zachary M. Smith on Oct. 4 for criminal trespass. All have pleaded not guilty. They asked Monday that the circuit court judge dismiss the charges.

Ranch employees spied on them to the point they couldn’t relieve themselves in private, stalked the group, harassed them in their tent, swore, yelled and intimidated them and caused one deer they were pursuing to run off, according to the allegations.

The bowhunters killed two elk and one deer but said one bag of game meat  – the “highest tied” in a hanging cache — went missing. At one point ranch manager Steve Grende followed them slowly for about a half mile as they walked, they wrote. He was in a pickup within about 30 yards while they were on public land, their statements say.

Elk Mountain Ranch did not return a call seeking comment regarding the allegations.

Game and Fish investigator Miller forwarded the statements to the Carbon County attorney’s office “for review,” according to an incident report dated Dec. 14. Carbon County Attorney Ashley Mayfield Davis on Tuesday would not comment on either the corner crossing or hunter harassment incidents, citing policies that preclude public discussion of matters that may be under investigation or in court.

The men told the following story in their statements: They planned their trip for about a year, arrived in the area on Sept. 26 and camped on BLM land near Elk Mountain for about nine days.

Soon after arriving they saw one or two pickup trucks regularly parked for hours on a road near their camp. The trucks’ occupants appeared to be watching them. “Our group was watched, stalked and harrassed [sic] by these groups of individuals constantly from very early morning till hours past dark,” Slowensky wrote.

The apparent surveillance went on practically unabated. “We proceeded to hide ourselves as best we could while dropping our pants and going to the bathroom,” Smith wrote. While hunting on public land, several times they heard or saw vehicles approaching them. At one point the men said the occupants of four different vehicles were watching them.

During one near encounter on public land, an ATV presumably driven by ranch employees scared a deer the hunters were stalking “over the hill,” Smith wrote.

The confrontations came to a boiling point on Oct 4 when, the men claim, Grende raced up to them in a pickup, yelled “WTF” and told them to get back to their camp.

“Steve [Grende] followed us within 20/30 feet in his vehicle for quite a long distance harassing us as we were trying to hunt legal public land,” Slowensky wrote. Smith added: “he claimed he was keeping our location for the Sheriff’s Department. He then claimed he was hunting but didn’t have any orange on.”

Game and Fish’s Miller then called the hunters and told them to return to camp, their statements said. Although Miller and at least one deputy had several contacts with the hunters, they had not yet issued any citations, the four wrote.

That changed.

“Deputy Pat #671 [identified in court documents as Patrick Patterson] came and told us he was ordered to write us criminal tresspass [sic] citations.” Cape wrote. Some Wyoming landowners have maintained that any incursion over the airspace above private land constitutes trespass.

“I questioned as to how we were tresspassing [sic] when we never had been on private land…” Cape wrote. “He [Patterson] said he didn’t know and that we could explain it to the Judge.”

That, Yeomans claimed, was another offense.

“The last instance of hunter harassment would come from the county attorney’s office which instructed a sheriff deputy to come to our camp and cite us from criminal trespass even though no law had been broken and we were told so, several times by law enforcement.”

The group aborted the expedition, which cost thousands of dollars, early with one hunting tag unfilled. The experience left a bitter taste.

“Although we never hid from anyone, we were always worried about confrontation throughout the entirety of our trip,” Smith wrote. “The doings of Elk Mountain Ranch employees ruined our 2021 Wyoming hunting trip that took us all year to plan.”

Added Slowensky: “An immense amount of time, effort, money and aspirations of personal enjoyment of going on my first elk hunt in the great state of Wyoming were extinguished due to the actions, false allegations, intimidation, greed and complete disregard of proper and legal usage of public property and public space by the mentioned groups and individuals …”

The harassment law

At issue is a Wyoming law that makes it illegal to interfere with “the lawful taking of wildlife.” The corner-crossing charges against the four are for criminal trespass, not a hunting violation.

A Wyoming attorney general’s opinion from 2004 states that corner crossing may not be a game-law infraction. A hunting trespass violation requires a person “to hunt or intend to hunt on private property without permission,” the opinion states.

The law also makes it illegal to interfere with hunters by scaring off wildlife. It also is a misdemeanor for any organization or association to harass a legal hunter, an infraction punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 on the first offense.

Aggrieved parties also can file a civil suit.

“Actual damages recoverable may include, but are not limited to expenditures for licenses, travel, outfitters and guides and special equipment and supplies to the extent the expenditures are rendered futile by the person’s conduct in violation of this section,” the law states.“If the trier of fact finds that the unlawful conduct was malicious, it may award punitive damage to the injured party,” the statute reads.