The American West Is Built on Contradicting Ideals. These Elk Hunters Were Caught in the Middle.
Over eight million acres of public lands are gridlocked by private property. When a group of hunters jumped from one plot of federal land to another, they ignited a debate around just how much a landowner can control.
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Wyoming is the least populous state in the country and, save for Alaska, contains the fewest human souls per square mile. More than half of its land is publicly owned; the rest is fiercely guarded. A pocket in the northwest, around Jackson, is a haven for some of the wealthiest people in America. Four hundred miles to the east, tall grasses wave at the brinks of yawning coal mines, in the region where the Oglala Lakota chief Red Cloud and his allies once battled the U.S. government into submission. In the southeast, as you drive west on Interstate 80 from the university town of Laramie, 11,156-foot Elk Mountain rises above meadows fattened by meandering creeks, on ground primarily owned by the North Carolina businessman Fred Eshelman, who made a fortune starting pharmaceutical companies that later sold for billions of dollars.
In 2019, a hunter from Missouri named Bradly Cape visited this region on a trip with some friends. Cape, 52, grew up on a cattle farm in Steelville, Missouri and now owns a fencing company in nearby Cuba. He is muscular with a buzzed, balding head and a drawl. The group had driven west to hunt pronghorn antelope and, during their time there, envisioned pursuing elk as well. To Cape’s eyes, Elk Mountain looked promising. Its peak rises above thick timber, where animals can bed; draws and chutes lead down to the valley floor. Many hundreds of elk live here, along with deer, moose, mountain lions, and bears. “We’ve got every kind of big animal you can dream of,” Eshelman once said. Now in his mid-seventies, with a trim build and silver hair, he is an enthusiastic mountain lion hunter.
Eshelman had on occasion permitted friends and a veterans’ group to hunt on his roughly 22,000-acre Elk Mountain Ranch, and employees were sometimes allowed to shoot cow elk. The ranch and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department had also reached an agreement to allow a limited number of hunters to apply for cow elk tags on the mountain. He kept a close eye on comings and goings through his property manager, a man named Steven Grende who had worked for Eshelman since 2013.
The huntable terrain around Elk Mountain covers about 50 square miles, and like much of the American West, it’s divided into square-mile sections. About two-thirds of the mountain’s sections are owned by one of Eshelman’s companies, Iron Bar Holdings; the others are public, stewarded by the Bureau of Land Management and the state of Wyoming. The checkerboard pattern dates to the late 19th century, when the federal government deeded alternating sections to transcontinental railroads. This led to swaths of public land being gridlocked by private property, and raised the question of whether the public can cross from section to section via the corners. This dispute remains unsettled, and federal and state laws don’t always align on the matter.
“When you have access issues crossing from one private property to get to another, it is controlled by state law,” said John Leshy, a law professor at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco and the former solicitor of the Department of the Interior. “But when the land is federally owned, you have potential for federal law to trump state law, or at least influence how it is applied.”
In Wyoming, the issue was as clear as spring runoff. In 2004, the state attorney general wrote an opinion stating that while corner crossing didn’t violate a statute prohibiting trespassing with the intent to hunt, the practice “may still be a criminal trespass.”
Cape read that opinion, interpreting it favorably. Before the 2020 season, he and two friends secured permits that would allow them to hunt bull elk with a bow and rifle in the area. Then, he said, “We looked at every map we could find.” They soon moved from state maps to ones furnished by onX, a digital mapping application. Based in Missoula, Montana, onX has changed hunting by overlaying satellite-generated topographic maps with property maps, allowing users to see when they’re on public and private lands—and to save data showing the historic locations of herds. Along with similar programs like Scout to Hunt, onX is now considered essential by many hunters. It is also a subject of ire for some who have long guarded cherished access points. (Outside’s parent company owns Gaia GPS, a mapping app that offers similar features for hiking and overlanding.) Guides make their living keeping and brokering knowledge about the location and behavior of animals in terrain that’s often rough and difficult to read. But since its advent in 2009, onX has allowed anyone with a smartphone and a subscription to identify both good hunting spots and the property lines that permit and limit entry to them. OnX claims that its property lines are accurate within five to ten feet. “Without onX, we couldn’t do what we did,” Cape told me.
In the fall of 2020, Cape drove west with two friends from Missouri: Phillip Yeomans, now 52, who maintains a fleet of trucks for Frito-Lay, and Zachary Smith, 24, an employee of Cape’s fencing company. They were traveling in Cape’s white GMC pickup, which was loaded up with food, camping gear, bows, and rifles. From I-80, they turned up Rattlesnake Pass Road toward Elk Mountain. They set up a base camp near the road, then walked to the corner of two adjacent public sections, numbered 24 and 14. The other two sections completing the corner are owned by Eshelman. While corners may appear neat on aerial maps, they’re often difficult to identify on the ground; patches of prairie don’t usually tell you which humans have laid claim to them. But in this case, the corner was well marked by two metal fence posts rising from the ground, each topped with a “NO TRESPASSING” sign. Grende, Eshelman’s property manager, had erected them in 2015 to dissuade corner crossing. A slanted chain linked them. Cape, who has built fences for a living for more than three decades, was unimpressed by the workmanship. (“I wouldn’t hire him,” he told me.) Cape, Yeomans, and Smith grabbed the signposts and pivoted around the outside of them, swinging their legs in the air so as not to touch the private ground beneath. The square-mile section just beyond, however, was fair game. The men walked onto the mountain, propelling them into the heart of a complex national debate about public access, private property, and the nature of wild lands in America. On October 1, Cape killed a bull elk. While he and his friends were field dressing it, a man pulled up in a vehicle. It was Grende. “How’d you get in here?” he asked. “You can’t corner-jump in Carbon County. Period.”
Cape responded, “I believe everything we read says we can.” Grende considered Cape’s kill, asking, “That a bull?” To which Cape responded, “It’s a good one, isn’t it?”