Wyoming Legislature versus Jonathan Ratner?

Wyoming legislature considers a rancher grudge bill due to Western Watershed’s Jonathan Ratner-

By Ralph Maughan (opinion)

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Last year the Idaho Legislature passed an an overreaching “ag-gag” bill because an animal rights group had videoed some dairy workers abusing cattle. This came despite the the dairy ending up fined as a result of the abuse. In retaliation in fact, the Idaho legislature passed the ag-gag law. That law is now in U.S. federal court due to legal claims it is unconstitutional.

A TWN ag-gag story from last year.

Now in the Cowboy State, the Wyoming Legislature is considering what seems like grudge bill from ranchers against Jonathan Ratner, the Wyoming Director for the Western Watersheds project. The content of the bill seems to related directly to the on-going court case, Frank Ranches, et al. v. Jonathan Ratner.

This lawsuit alleges Ratner trespassed upon their private property while he was getting to portions of streams that were not on their property. Ratner was collecting water quality samples to give to the state of Wyoming to show evidence of water quality violations on public waterways of water.

Yes, the samples showed numerous violations.

In all the instances but one, the plaintiffs can’t show Ratner ever crossed their land, lands that were not posed closed to the public regardless. Their “knowledge” of this is based on the supposition he must have crossed their lands, given the locations of some of the samples. It should be noted that Ratner also flies an ultralight.

And what were the damages done? After all, the plaintiffs seek “actual, nominal, and punitive damages.” Presumably Ratner merely crossed their land, leaving no evidence. There is obviously no actual damage. Are the punitive damages for wounded pride?

They might be thinking something like, how dare you cross my land to see if my cattle might have filled the creek with shit in violation of the law. Hell, we make the laws around here, or ignore those we don’t like.

Now the legislature is taking up the rancher cause, it seems. This is not a surprise. Cynics in Wyoming have long said, and written, “ranchers rule the Wyoming legislature.” At any rate, the bill’s authors elect to use the same sweeping method that Idaho dairy interests used. It is this. Make a law that criminalizes many kinds of activities, but only prosecute a person or small number that you don’t like out of those who violate the law. Idaho hasn’t prosecuted anyone yet with their ag-gag, for example. This means perhaps the law is serving its purpose because there are no more inconvenient videos showing up.

Lack of prosecution is one reason why the federal case in Idaho is going slowly. It is hard to show the law’s unconstitutional reach when there is no reach evident.

American law-making bodies are supposed to make general laws. They can’t pass a law against an individual person or criminalize something after the fact — an ex post facto law. These were the methods of medieval tyrants, and the Framers of Constitution were well aware of these abuses in Europe.

In reality, American law-making bodies try to do this anyway. Their attempt in Wyoming is laughable. Trespassers on private land out to collect data could be jailed for six months and fined $5,000. This bill has already passed a state senate committee. According to an article in the Casper Star Tribune, the oil and gas industry also had input on the bill as well as agriculture. Might they have something to hide?

Imagine this scenario.

“Are you guys going fishin?”

“Yes sir!”

“Well, this is private property. You wouldn’t be out here collectin data, would ya?”

“No. What’s that . . . ‘daytah’? How do you spell it?”

“I guess you’re OK then, but don’t you go countin stuff or pointing that cell phone camera at any of my animals or the presents they leave behind on the ground. Ya, hear?”

They say it is a respect for private property that motivates them to seek this law. Private property rights has long been used in the United States as a cover for illegal activities. “Private property” can be used to cover all kinds violations of the public interest, human rights, worker abuse, and harm generated that hurts the private property of other’s too.

Governments can, of course, overreach and truly harm innocent private property, but this one seems an obvious case of the public interest (water quality) being made subservient to the power of a group that has really suffered no damage at all.




  1. JB Avatar

    Does Wyoming allow hunters to trespass in pursuit of wounded game? Some states require landowner permission, others don’t. It would be interesting if the legislature inadvertently made it illegal to retrieve game from adjacent private landholdings…

    1. Elk375 Avatar

      I suppose that Wyoming is like Montana, if a wounded animal crosses onto private property and the hunter can not get permission one must contact the game warden for retrieval.

  2. rork Avatar

    I always have several 15ml Falcon’s with me, but they aren’t trespass permits (in MI).

  3. Cody Coyote Avatar
    Cody Coyote

    Ralph has it pegged. It is a crude piece of retaliatory legislation . Even my own Park County Commissioners in Cody – 400 road miles away from Sublette County where Ratner allegedly slogged on the Stockgrower’s sacred ground— have publically blustered about this. Except this sort of data gathering trespass has never occurred to anyone’s knowledge in Park County — but should , X 100 . Western Watersheds has little active presence in PC ( one guy , quiet) so the bill before the Wyoming Lej is a statewide conspiracy of cattlemen showing solidarity against a percieved enemy and a single transgression , for lack of a better visage.

    My conclusion is the Stockgrower’s know how easy it would be for anyone to show how destructive the public and open lands grazing practices are , and are calling in a preemtptive strike. Same tactics different issue. The Wyoming Stockgrowers cabal have always rolled like this.

  4. Kathleen Avatar

    Ratner could check the handy flowchart to see if, indeed, he’s an animal rights or environmental terrorist…

    Also, let’s not forget who’s behind these laws…

  5. jerry collins Avatar
    jerry collins

    Do you really think this is going to stop Monsanto from sneaking onto land to steal grain samples.

  6. Kevin Jamison Avatar
    Kevin Jamison

    What’s a 15ml Falcon?

    1. Immer Treue Avatar
      Immer Treue

      Let the guessing begin.
      Auto spell mistake: should be flask.

    2. rork Avatar

      “15ml Falcon”: sorry for lab jargon, thought it clear they were collection devises.
      They are easily-written-on plastic tubes good for collecting (seeds, insects, plant or fungus materials, water, etc), but designed for centrifuges. 50ml also common. Try web search.

  7. Garry Rogers Avatar

    Irritating. Special interests control the legislature in Russia and many other vaguely lawful countries. I guess it’s what we must expect in a country with a congress dedicated to building a plutocracy. But wait, there must be some mistake; I thought ranchers were dedicated stewards of the land.

  8. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    The ranchers who might pollute the streams (lets give them the benefit of the doubt) don’t want anyone monitoring water quality, and they are trying to use property rights and trespass to make themselves invulnerable to observation from anyone other than the government, which they control in Wyoming.

    We can look at property rights another way as far as pollution goes. Pollution that goes beyond their boundaries is in fact a trespass upon the public, and likely upon someone else’s private property, and upon one’s person too, even if it is not harmful they had no permission.

    1. rork Avatar

      You have identified a problem.
      The solution not-so-much.

  9. Rick Hobson Avatar
    Rick Hobson

    I wonder how long it will be before some enterprising environmentalist starts using small commercially-available drones to start taking pictures and getting water samples?


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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