Sparring begins in civil lawsuit alleging trespassing by Western Watershed Project; Defendants seek dismissal

(Lander, Wyo.) – The Western Watershed Projects has moved to dismiss a lawsuit that was filed against it this summer by five Fremont and Sublette county ranch interests. A WWP spokesman also said a news release issued by the plaintiffs in the case contained factual errors and misrepresented the project’s financial standing.

In the motion, the defendants claimed the ranchers “have utterly failed to substantiate their claims and the case should be dismissed.” According to the defendants, they were also targeted by the ranchers “for exposing poor water quality conditions on public lands that violate federal law and create health risks for water users, conditions the livestock industry hopes to hide through its retaliatory lawsuit.” The motion to dismiss “demonstrates that the Plaintiffs have provided no concrete evidence of trespass, have ignored established public rights of way, and have failed to demonstrate any actual damage caused by the alleged trespass,” according to the WWP’s filing.

In June, the ranchers filed a civil trespass lawsuit against Jonathan Ratner, the WWP Director for Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, and John Does 1-10 with the Western Watersheds Project, Inc. “for intentionally and without landowner permission trespassing and entering private property.”

In a July response filed by WWP, the group alleges the case is an attempt to silence them. However, according to the landowners’ attorney, Karen Budd-Falen, this lawsuit is strictly about trespass. “Private citizens do not have the right to cross private property without permission,” said Budd-Falen.

“The allegations are too speculative to form the basis of a substantive lawsuit,” said Travis Bruner, Executive Director of WWP. “The truth is that WWP did not knowingly trespass and the ranchers can’t provide any factual evidence that we did so. The court should drop the whole case, which is just a distraction from the real issue, which is that these permittees are polluting public waters on public lands with their irresponsible management of livestock grazing.”

According to the plaintiff’s information, trespasses by WWP occurred while collecting and submitting water quality samples to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Trespasses also occurred while collecting range monitoring data. Some of the data collection was on private lands, they allege. According to a news release from the plaintiffs, “In their response, Western Watersheds Project alleges legal cost is too much for them so pro bono representation is necessary for their organization. They fail to mention they have four attorneys on staff and frequently receive money from the federal government for filing lawsuits.” The Plaintiffs alleged WWP has collected $2.3 million in taxpayer funds by “filing” lawsuits.

Bruner took exception to that statement noting that WWP has only 2.5 full-time active attorneys and that money received from the Federal Government’s Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), did not all go to the WWP as alleged by the ranchers. “The EAJA  provides reimbursements for attorney fees for successful claims against the government. Those funds are only distributed after an action is completed, not upon filing, and the vast majority of those funds go to the attorneys who litigate the case. To say that the WWP is sitting on some $2.3 million from past judgments is not accurate at all,” Bruner said. Bruner did say the WWP is seeking ProBono representation in the case.

“Lawsuits require more than just speculation and guesswork,” said Justin Pidot from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, one of the attorneys representing WWP on the case. “Members of the public frequently use the roads at issue to reach public land. WWP uses the roads in just the same way. There is simply no evidence that WWP harmed anyone by using these roads, and there is no proof that the landowners told WWP not to use these roads, as is required by Wyoming law to sustain a claim of trespass.”

(Friday’s) motion also asks the court to dismiss the case because the ranchers’ misconduct in violating water quality standards is connected to the matter in litigation, and their motives for bringing the lawsuit against WWP are improper.”

“To WWP, the means justifies the ends. The WWP is trespassing on private property to advance its goals of eliminating the livelihoods of Wyoming ranchers,” Budd-Falen said. “This litigation was filed because compliance with the law should mean something to WWP,” a news release said. “Trespassing on private land without permission is against the law. For this reason, the Plaintiffs in this lawsuit have the support of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, Wyoming Stock Growers Association and Wyoming Wool Growers Association.”