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Field Reports: Montana judge upholds public access to Ruby River

From staff and wire reports

RIVERS – A Montana judge has created a public access point to the Ruby River after a 12-year fight by an out-of-state landowner to block people from getting to the waterway where it flows through his property.

District Judge Loren Tucker ruled last week that the easement extends 5 feet on either side of the Seyler Lane bridge south of Twin Bridges.

James Cox Kennedy, chairman of Cox Enterprises, an Atlanta-based media company, began buying property along the river in the 1990s and closing off public access. The Public Land/Water Access Association sued Madison County in 2004 to get it to force Kennedy to provide public access and remove fences.

State law says people can use streams up to the high water mark. The Montana Legislature confirmed in 2009 that the public has access to surface waters by public bridge or county road right-of-way.

Usually county roads have a 60-foot public easement that allows for road maintenance. But Judge Tucker ruled in 2012 that the Seyler Lane bridge had no such access point.

The state Supreme Court returned the case to Tucker in 2014, saying he must establish a definite width of the public right-of-way so Madison County could maintain the bridge.

John Gibson, president of the Public Land/Water Access Association, called the ruling a win for public access.

“If we hadn’t fought this, I’m afraid we’d be looking at ‘No Trespassing’ signs and electric fences across the state,” Gibson said. “Somebody had to stop these people.”

The case was the third the association has won over access to the Ruby River from bridges in Madison County. The two other bridges are at Duncan and Lewis lanes, south of Seyler Lane, and also are surrounded by Kennedy’s property.

Kennedy invested millions of dollars in improving the river’s fishery and habitat, said Reed Watson with Bozeman-based Property and Environment Research Center.

Watson said it was not clear if the decision grants public access along Seyler Lane, but if it does, it creates a disincentive for future conservation efforts by other private landowners.

Poachers duped by wardens’ decoys

HUNTING – Wyoming game wardens are using decoys to trap poachers, luring as many as 10 illegal hunters a day.

Wyoming Game and Fish regional supervisor Scott Werbelow said mule deer and elk decoys made of plastic foam allow game wardens to be present at the scene of a crime with no risk to living wildlife.

“We hide them a little bit,” said Werbelow. “He’s going to have to be looking to hunt.”

Werbelow recalled one case where he caught a hunter who quickly realized his mistake. Werbelow said the man threw down his rifle and said, “I shot the same darned deer last year!”

Wardens say it helps them find violators in an area that covers 2,000 square miles, where the law can’t be everywhere at once. Authorities want to catch hunters who shoot animals out of season or without licenses, unlicensed outfitters who take out clients and those who spotlight animals at night.

Meeteetse game warden Jim Olson said game taken illegally is often not killed for its meat.

“Every one of us has seen a poached animal with its head cut off for the antlers,” he said. The rest of the animal is left to rot.

In other cases, Olson said, animals were injured and left to die, including an elk found hung up on a fence.

“She had been laying there for four or five days, licking snow for water,” said Olson, who euthanized the suffering animal.

The violators were caught, and they lost their hunting privileges and paid fines and restitution, the Cody (Wyoming) Enterprise reported .

Olson said violators need to face stiffer penalties, saying they are essentially being allowed to buy their way out of crimes.

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