CHEYENNE -- The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission^s authority to prohibit structures, such as a shed, root cellar, deck and even a house, that hinder access on their fishing easements southeast of Dubois was upheld July 14 by the Wyoming Supreme Court.
The state high court^s ruling upholds an August 1997 decision by Ninth Judicial District Judge D. Terry Rogers in Lander.
"The supreme court^s ruling is a victory for the sportsmen who fund all the easements in Wyoming," said G&F Director John Baughman. "This ruling guarantees their privilege to enjoy the entire width of the easement without it being obstructed."
In 1992, the G&F asked landowners along the 6.5 miles of fishing easement on the Wind River and Jakey^s Fork to remove permanent structures from the easement, which extends 50 feet above the stream^s high water line. The G&F claimed the structures impeded the "pedestrian" angler access as stated in the deed of the properties.
Three homeowners filed suit against the G&F in 1995 contending the easement was ambiguous and it only required them to allow public access along the stream and does not prohibit building permanent structures within the easement. They maintained since they owned and paid property taxes on the ground included in the easement, they had the right to develop the property as they wished.
In the ruling, Wyoming Chief Justice Larry Lehman wrote: "...appropriate use (of the easement) does not include the placement of permanent structures and other objects. If the landowners were permitted to do so, they would be given license to retake the easements in a piecemeal fashion."
This decision now protects the other 120 miles of fishing easements in Wyoming from encroachment," Baughman said.
"This case was a pure question of law. The court recognized the Game and Fish easement as being clear and unambiguous," said Ron Arnold, former senior assistant attorney general, who represented the G&F. "The decision means that if there is an easement of a defined width, the user is entitled to use that full width."
Arnold, who is now on the Wyoming Board of Equalization, said case law from all across the country stated that development of an easement with a defined width could not infringe on the use for which the easement was established.
"This ruling is likely destined to become important case law for wildlife easements all across the country," Arnold added.
In addition to the three landowners who sued the G&F, 16 other landowners who had violated the easement were brought into the case as third party defendants. Arnold said that was necessary so the court^s decision would apply to everyone that encroached the easement.
"We (G&F) weren^t saying that the easement grants anglers an exclusive right and property owners couldn^t picnic or play ball on the easement," Arnold said. "We contended if permanent structures or objects are placed in the easement that make use of the easement less convenient, then there is a problem."