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Ranch owner: Corner-crossing damages could exceed $7M

The University of North Carolina published this photo of Fred Eshelman at a ceremony for the school of pharmacy, to which he has donated millions. He is the manager of Iron Bar Holdings LLC, a New Hanover County, North Carolina, company that owns the Elk Mountain Ranch. (Screengrab/UNC)

In a disclosure statement, an attorney for Elk Mountain Ranch says four hunters diminished the value of the 22,000-acre property by between $3.1 million and $7.75 million when they passed through its airspace.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. WyoFile

The owner of Elk Mountain Ranch asserts that four Missouri hunters who corner-hopped to hunt public land near his property caused damages that could exceed $7 million.

An attorney for Iron Bar Holdings LLC, official owner of the ranch, made the claim in documents that are part of a trespassing civil suit filed against the hunters in February. As part of the lawsuit, which is now in the U.S. District Court for Wyoming, Iron Bar attorney Gregory Weisz signed a disclosure statement that alleges damages of between $3.1 million to $7.75 million.

Weisz signed the document Aug. 29 and served it on those involved in the corner-crossing case. A source allowed WyoFile to see the document on the condition of anonymity.

The damage figure is “the most egregious thing I’ve seen,” said Land Tawney, the president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a nationwide sportspersons’ conservation group that has supported the hunter’s defense. By claiming such large damages, the ranch owner is continuing a pattern of bullying, this time in court, Tawney said.

Some ranchers see the issue differently. A decision that corner crossing or other ways of accessing public land is not trespassing could devalue a ranch “by the fact it’s no longer closed property — it’s open to public crossing,” said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.

The civil suit alleges that the four men trespassed when they crossed from one piece of public U.S. Bureau of Land Management land to another at the four-corner intersection with two pieces of property belonging to Elk Mountain Ranch. In the checkerboard-pattern of land ownership in Carbon County, the men hunted on the public land without setting foot on private property.

The suit claims the men trespassed by passing through the airspace above the ranch, interfering with “the exclusive use, possession, and control” of the property. Attorneys for Iron Bar distributed the disclosure document as part of the legal process that requires parties to list and share potential witnesses and a computation of alleged damages in preparation for a trial, the date of which has not been set.

The disclosure statement is four pages long and is supported by what one source said is another 104 pages of deeds, an appraisal and other material. The disclosure statement says it is likely that Fredric Eshelman, a North Carolina businessman, would testify for Iron Bar Holdings. The Carbon County prosecuting attorney identified Eshelman as the owner of Elk Mountain Ranch during a related criminal trespass trail in April.

$31-million ranch

The list of alleged damages includes a $10 figure for civil trespass damages, according to the disclosure statement. It also lists an estimate of actual damages of between $3.1 million to $7.75 million.

Those alleged actual damages arise from a 10%-25% diminution of the value of Iron Bar Holdings’ property, according to the disclosure statement. To support the claim, material appended to the statement includes an appraisal of the ranch.

Norman C. Wheeler & Associates, a Montana company specializing in rural property appraisals, appraised the Elk Mountain Ranch at $31.31 million in 2017, according to a document with the company letterhead that’s attached to the disclosure statement. That value included 22,042 acres and $5.96 million in buildings.

Other damages claimed in the statement include $7,500 from interference with a military veterans’ hunting program, interference with other operations and costs incurred through extra employee time. The value of still more alleged damages, including the hunters’ purported contention that any person may cross Iron Bar’s private property without permission, will be determined at trial, the disclosure states.

Other costs, expenses and fees also will be determined at trial, according to the statement.

In addition to Eshelman, who made a fortune in the pharmaceutical business, Iron Bar could call ranch property manager Steve Grende and another employee, Becky Englert, as witnesses.

In addition to the civil lawsuit, hunters Phillip Yeomans, Bradly Cape, John Slowensky and Zachary Smith faced criminal trespass charges for the same incident filed by the Carbon County attorney. A Carbon County Circuit Court jury in April found them not guilty of criminal trespass and trespassing to hunt, misdemeanor charges filed after their 2021 trip to Wyoming.

The civil case could have implications for accessing an estimated 8.3 million acres of public land across the West, 2.44 million of which are in Wyoming. That’s the acreage estimated to be “corner locked” by any interpretation of the law that prohibits corner crossing, according to an analysis by the onX digital mapping company.

The hunters believe the Unlawful Inclosures Act of 1885 allows them access to public land.

Wyoming Backcountry Hunters and Anglers organized a GoFundMe campaign to ensure the hunters could defend themselves regardless of their financial resources. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the nationwide umbrella group to which the Wyoming chapter belongs, sought to support the hunters’ civil defense to ensure the case was decided in federal, not state court, an issue that’s since been resolved.

Private property rights

BHA president Tawney said the $3.1 million-$7.75 million damages figure continues a pattern of behavior by Elk Mountain Ranch owners and operators.

“The ranch manager bullied these [hunter] guys” when he confronted them on public land in the field, Tawney said. “They bullied the prosecuting attorney” in Carbon County and convinced her to file criminal charges, he said.

“And now they try to use these other tactics of bullying against all public land users,” he said. Lawsuits that claim exorbitant damages are “a tactic wealthy individuals use over and over again” to intimidate others, he said.

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is not fighting against private property rights, he said.

“This is about keeping [open] the opportunity for the public to access public land,” he said. “We want willing partners, but also access to public land that is rightfully ours.”

Magagna’s stock growers group, along with Wyoming Wool Growers Association, filed an amicus brief in the civil suit on behalf of landowners who believe corner crossing is trespassing. Such filings are allowed so that parties can weigh in on cases in which they may have information, expertise and insight even though they are not a party to the action.

“We’re not taking any position with specifics of this case,” Magagna said. The issue affects private property rights and the right to control access, “including corner crossing and reasonable airspace,” he said.

The stock and wool growers amicus brief does not address damages, said Karen Budd-Falen, a Cheyenne attorney who filed 41 pages, including attachments, for the agricultural groups. It does attack the hunters’ position that the UIA allows corner crossing.

“Questions as to the existence and scope of a person’s property right have long been a creature of state law,” Budd-Falen wrote. She quoted a court decision that “[p]roperty interests are not created by the Constitution, but … are created and their dimensions are defined by … an independent source such as state law.

“Congress did not reserve any means of access to [public] reserved lands in the checkerboard,” the brief reads. “Simply put, the [hunters’] argument that federal law authorizes trespass across private property is patently incorrect… The Unlawful [I]nclosures Act did not repeal the prohibition against trespass on private lands to access federal lands.”

Budd-Falen contends the issue should be settled by the Wyoming Supreme Court, not in the federal venue.

Iron Bar Holdings attorney Weisz did not respond to requests for comment Friday morning.

A trial could take place next summer and last several days, according to court documents.