Trespassing is an easy crime to pooh-pooh when you can hear a rare life list bird species over the hill or if the perfect mountain biking route cuts the corner of someone else’s back 40.
Even some hunters – the one outdoor group that’s specifically schooled on trespassing laws during mandatory hunter education courses – can rationalize going through another person’s fence for a quick shot at game that’s eluded them everywhere else.
But nothing about hunting is more basic than respecting the land that provides our game and getting permission before entering private property.
The first step is to know the laws, which vary from state to state.
In Montana, hunters must have permission of the landowner before hunting on private land, regardless of whether it’s posted.
Washington laws are similar. The first line of RCW 77.15.435 states: A person is guilty of unlawfully hunting on, or retrieving hunted wildlife from, the property of another if the person knowingly enters or remains unlawfully in or on the premises of another for the purpose of hunting for wildlife or retrieving hunted wildlife.
Specific hunting-related language in Washington’s trespassing laws was enacted last year. The big change allows Fish and Wildlife police to seize an animal taken by a trespasser. Previously, a hunter who saw trophy game on someone else’s land might be tempted to shoot it and take the chance of getting a ticket for trespassing, knowing he’d be able to keep the animal. A citation would be a lot less expensive than a lease.
Removing that incentive already has resulted in fewer hunter trespassing incidents, says Capt. Dan Rahn, wildlife enforcement supervisor in Spokane.
Idaho’s trespass law, enacted in the late 1980s, states, “No person may enter private land to hunt, fish, or trap without permission if the land is either cultivated or posted….”
Proper posting includes signs, but landowners also have the option of painting trees or posts with 100 square inches of fluorescent orange paint to signal the property is off limits. Another method is to paint metal fence posts with blaze orange at least every 660 feet around the property.
“Idaho’s law is more hunter friendly than trespass laws in surrounding states and most of the rest of the country,” said Phil Cooper, Fish and Game Department wildlife educator.
“With so much of Idaho land publicly owned, and much private land interspersed among tracts of public ground, it isn’t always apparent if land is public or private. Idaho’s law accommodates this possible uncertainty of ownership.”
Rather than read trespassing laws, some people would rather spread myths and hearsay. Cooper says IFG officers have noted several common misconceptions among hunters, such as:
• A landowner cannot grant permission to hunt posted ground.
• Even the owner may not hunt on posted property.
“I have never understood where these beliefs originated,” he said.
“No Hunting” signs simply prohibit hunting without permission on land. Cultivated land cannot be accessed without permission, and no signs are needed to close access if ground is cultivated, and that includes hay fields.
Every seasoned hunter has been turned down, but surveys of rural Idaho landowners indicate that up to 88 percent of them will grant permission to hunt their land especially if sportsmen ask well in advance before they’ve reached their season threshold.
Some landowners post their land to protect themselves but will grant permission to some of the hunters who ask.
That point struck me in September when I was asking permission to hunt pheasants later in the fall. Two of five landowners granted me permission, but every one of them finished the conversation by saying, “Thanks for asking.”
Doubtless sportsmen who don’t have the inclination to get permission can find loopholes their lawyer could exploit in defending trespassing cases.
For example, Washington recognizes the defense that a hunter may have “reasonably believed” the premises were not privately owned.
And Idaho’s rule allowing one to enter unposted non-cultivated land seems to offer tacit consent to drive all over a ranch in a four-wheeler.
But what kind of hunter would drive on someone else’s property without permission, regardless of whether the land is posted?
Craig Walker, Idaho Fish and Game’s Panhandle Region conservation officer with decades of experience working with hunters and landowners, cuts through the vagaries of law to the bottom line.
“A responsible hunter should always ask for permission when hunting private property,” he said. “This includes getting direction on what and where motorized access would be allowed.
“In the strictest sense, yes, (Idaho) landowners are giving the green light to drive all over their property if the (uncultivated) land is not posted.
“However, this type of behavior is certainly the quickest way to see ‘No Trespassing’ signs, and to generate a poor opinion of hunters in general.
“‘Ruining it for the rest of us’ is the phrase that comes to mind.”
Contact Rich Landers at (509) 4599-5508 or email email@example.com.