Citing numerous violations of private property rights, a group of 15 ranchers in two central Wyoming counties are accusing Idahobased Western Watersheds Project (WWP) of repeatedly and intentionally trespassing on private land.
In a lawsuit filed in Wyoming District Court on June 13, the ranchers allege that, between 2005 and 2012, more than 25 instances of willful trespass occurred. The suit also specifically names Jonathan Ratner, WWP’s Director for Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, as well as 10 unnamed associates of the anti-grazing organization, and seeks damages, as well as an injunction preventing further trespass by WWP members.
The trespasses, according to the complaint lodged by the ranchers, occurred while WWP personnel were engaged in collecting water quality samples for submission to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), as well as during the collection of range monitoring data.
In a prepared statement Karen Budd-Falen, lead attorney for the ranchers, pointed out that the stated mission of WWP is the removal of livestock from all public lands, a cause that may have led members to feel justified in trespassing.
“In order to advance the agenda of WWP, the defendants were willing to break laws by illegally tres passing on private property,” wrote Budd-Falen. “Landowners are not comfortable having an extremely biased organization, that has not demonstrated the professional qualifications to collect credible data, trespassing on their lands.”
Regardless of intent, says Wyoming Stockgrowers Association (WSA) Executive Vice President Jim Magagna, the private property rights of the landowners should not have been violated.
“In this case, it happened to be to gather data that may or may not be used against the private landowners’ own
interests,” says Magagna. “Whether it’s that, or a mission that we may agree with, the reality is that there is no circumstance under which intentional or willful trespass across private land is justified.”
As of press time, WWP’s Jonathan Ratner had not responded to requests for comment. In a June 14 interview with the Casper Star Tribune, however, WWP Executive Director Travis Bruner was dismissive of the ranchers’ claims. “This is likely an attempt by the livestock industry to prevent us from doing our work on public land in the interests of wildlife habitat,” he said.
Under Wyoming law, any group or individual may submit legally-obtained water quality samples to the state DEQ, once a requisite training program has been completed. “Our DEQ has laid out a set of criteria for water quality testing, as well as a training protocol,” explains Magagna. “Anyone who is properly trained and follows that criteria can then submit water quality data to DEQ, which they will take into consideration.”
These privileges, however, do not extend to private property.
“One of the criteria that DEQ has is that you must have legal access to the point at which you do your sampling, which must be on public land,” says Magagna.
“There is nothing in the DEQ process that should have led anyone to believe that there was authorization to trespass on private land.”
As is the case in many western states, public lands in Wyoming are laid out in a checkerboard pattern with privately owned lands. As a result of this, a tract of public land may be entirely surrounded by private property.
In these situations, a landowner may provide access across their property to public land if they choose, but the law does not require them to do so.
According to the lawsuit, DEQ records show that Ratner, on behalf of WWP, submitted the sampling and analysis plan (SAP) necessary to submit water quality samples in 2005, and again in 2010. “The signed 2005 SAP and the 2010 SAP affirmatively state that all water quality monitoring will be in compliance with Wyoming’s Credible Data Act of 1999,” wrote Budd-Falen. “Additionally, the SAPs state the sampling sites will be on public lands with legal public access.”
According to the lawsuit, however, when WWP submitted their samples to the DEQ, the associated GPS data told a different story. The data showed numerous samples taken in areas that could not have been accessed without illegally crossing private property. An additional two sampling sites were actually located on private property, and still others were located on land owned by the state of Wyoming, where such sampling is not permitted.
These details drew the attention of Wyoming’s office of State Lands and Investments, which warned WWP on April 1 of this year that further sampling on state lands may result in trespass charges from the state. According to Budd-Falen, the extensive use of GPS in the sampling procedure makes it apparent that the trespass was intentional. “Because the defendants were required to use GPS equipment to note the locations of their water monitoring sites, they knew, or should have known, that they were trespassing on private property to access these sites,” she wrote.
In alignment with the GPS data, the lawsuit points to numerous instances where no trespassing signs appear to have been willfully ignored, as well as at least one case where Ratner apparently defied verbal instruction from a landowner on multiple occasions, after being denied access across that landowner’s property.
Given the evidence, Magagna is hopeful that the lawsuit will bring satisfaction to the affected ranchers.
The WSA, along with the state’s Farm Bureau, and several other organizations have pledged their support, joining the landowners in the case. “When (trespass) is repetitive, as the evidence indicates in our complaint before the court, we think that it’s appropriate that these individual landowners defend their property rights,” he says. “As an organization that represents landowners, we want to stand solidly behind them in that defense.
It’s not some novel concept we’re dealing with here, it’s one of the most fundamental principles of the law.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent