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Old Fence Hunter by Jeremy Buckingham

Checkerboard—It’s not just a Town

By Terry L. Anderson
John and Jean DeNault Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

When residents of Meagher County hear the word “checkerboard,” they likely think of the tiny town 20 miles to the east of White Sulphur Springs, but to ranchers in Wyoming it is a fighting word. The fighting started in 2020 when four Missouri hunters got elk tags to hunting in the southwestern part of Wyoming near the Elk Mountain Ranch, owned by an “out-of-stater” from North Carolina. The hunters knew there was no public hunting allowed on the ranch, and they also knew that the lack of access made the ranch and adjacent public land a haven for elk.

Their solution to the access problem was “checkerboarding.” Look at any cadastral map of Montana and you will know what it means. Federal land policies including homesteading, the railroad land grants, and school trust land set-asides created a checkerboard pattern with alternative sections of private and public land.

The Missouri hunters decided they could access the public land squares by crossing the infanticidal intersection of the checkerboard. In other words, they thought they could cross through the space from public to pubic without trespassing.

The landowner thought differently. Obviously, the hunters’ bodies had to cross through the space about the rancher’s land and therefore constituted a trespass. Thinking the law was on his side, the rancher summoned the sheriff, but the man with the badged didn’t issue a criminal citation for trespass because, it turns out, the law was not so clear.

In 2021 the Missouri hunters tried to “corner cross” again, this time with an A-frame ladder with its legs firmly on public land. This time the private landowner filed a civil suit against the hunters claiming a $7.75 million diminution in the value of the ranch.

Eventually the case went to the Wyoming Supreme Court which found the hunters innocent and now is being weighed by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

This story will sound familiar to landowners and anglers old enough to remember the stream access controversy in Montana. The question regarding stream access centered around whether people could float on or wade in water flowing through and across private land. The controversy was resolved when the legislature passed the Montana Stream Access Law, giving the public the right to recreate on rivers and streams up to the ordinary high water mark.

Like stream access, corner crossing is about who has the right to access valuable public land and water. Groups such as Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a self-proclaimed “conservation group,” claims the public has a right to access public resources, and private landowners claim they have a right to say who crosses their property to access public resources.

As these claimants continue to battle, it is time to bring a little Montana heritage and commonsense to the debate. As a kid growing up in Bridger, Montana, I could walk out my front door and hunt when I was 12, but I knew I had to have permission from the landowners. I knew I did not have permission to “hunt on ‘old lady Jones’ property,” and I never did.

It is this heritage that is the foundation of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks’ adage, “Ask first to hunt on private lands,” and it is the law to do so. I know it, my kids know it, and I hope that their kids do. Whether you are a Montana native or a newcomer, you should know it, too!

On the other side of the fence (pun intended) are the landowners. While “old Lady Jones” said no, there were many others who said “yes” after I “asked first.” Montana heritage gives the landowner the right to say yes or no and tells the hunter or angler to respect the answer.

This commonsense heritage applies whether you are a native or newcomer. Montana was never the “wild, wild west” because people respected one another’s rights. Searching for wiggle room—such as corner crossing—to challenge long standing property rights and traditions is not the Montana way. “Ask first” is.