DENVER (CN) – Western Watersheds, whose research led to a bill that outlawed “citizen science” in Wyoming, tried to persuade a judge this week to dismiss property owners’ lawsuit against it.
Fourteen ranchers sued the environmental group last year, claiming it trespassed on their lands to collect water samples, searching for e. coli. The bacteria, which can cause serious illness in humans, is frequently traced to cattle feces and urine.
In response, Wyoming criminalized collection of “data” on private and public land, without consent of the landowner.
The so-called Data Trespass Bill, which Gov. Matt Mead signed on March 10, punishes violators with up to a year in prison and fines if they trespass to collect ecological data.
Charges can be filed even if the trespass is in national or state parks, and even if it involves merely taking photos or a test tube full of water.
Environmentalists called it truckling to the state’s powerful ranchers, who persuaded a complaisant Legislature to outlaw ecological research rather than protect public waters.
Western Watersheds filed a motion to dismiss in December, and a hearing on the motion was held Monday in Fremont County District Court in Lander, presided over by Judge Norman Young.
Western Watersheds said its members never trespassed on private lands to collect their water samples.
The ranchers’ attorney Karen Budd-Falen disputes that.
“I feel like we have a very, very strong case for trespass,” said Budd-Falen, of Cheyenne. “I’m very confident in that.
“This is a trespass case. We have alleged that the defendants have illegally crossed trespassed across private lands and collected data, and they’ve crossed them to get public land.”
But Jonathan Ratner, Western Watersheds’ Wyoming director and a defendant in the rancher’s case, said the Wyoming Legislature passed its “Data Trespass Law” to retaliate against him – and that that’s nothing new in Wyoming.
“I’ve had a number of laws passed against me personally,” Ratner said.
The first time came when he tried to use a remedy for overgrazing in Wyoming that he had used successfully in Idaho, Ratner said.
“We had great success in actually bidding higher than the ranching industry for state land leases – and not grazing them [in Idaho],” Ratner said. “So we were paying more to not graze them than the grazers were paying to graze them.”
But when Ratner tried it in Wyoming, the Legislature cut him short.
“Two weeks after our bids were submitted a state law was passed to basically eliminate our ability to bid on state land leases,” Ratner said. “It’s beyond comprehension.”
The second law established a public enemy for him. Using taxpayer money, Wyoming set up a department to collect data that could discredit other data, Ratner said.
“It was establishing an entity within the Department of Agriculture to essentially use taxpayer money to fund the data collection for private entities. So now taxpayer money goes to supporting individual permittees to collect data to essentially counteract our data.”
Statutes 61 and 82 in the Data Trespass Bill are the third and fourth laws passed against him, Ratner said.
Enrolled Act 82, to take effect July 1, allows people to sue trespassers directly. Enrolled Act 61, which has taken effect, requires a prosecutor to do it.
“Essentially the two combined acts make it illegal to do … virtually all the work I do,” Ratner said.
“Since I’m the one causing the grief in the agriculture industry, the two bills are perfectly designed to target, and eliminate, what I do.”
Ratner calls it an attack on the public’s right to provide oversight on public lands.
“It completely removes that possibility, which is exactly what they want: to ensure that they do what they do with no oversight,” he said.
Supporters of the bill claim that it is about accountability and landowner privacy.
“I certainly disagree with the notion that landowners are trying to hide something,” said Bobbie Frank, director of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts.
“When you collect data, if you are going to cross private property you should ask permission to do so. That seems fairly basic and it brings some integrity back to data collection.”
But Ratner says Wyoming’s Department of Environment Quality, which oversees implementation of the Clean Water Act, lacks the resources to do its job.
“The DEQ has three teams of individuals collecting water quality data for the entire state,” Ratner said. “Basically, the state is divided into three areas, and each team deals with on- third of the state.”
With more than 700 square miles of water in Wyoming, Ratner said, that’s too much for three teams to undertake.
“It’s massive. And each team is required to collect huge amounts of data at each site that it visits, and so for a single site, it takes a team somewhere in the range of three to five days to collect the data at that particular site. The result is that the DEQ team – I’m being approximate here – visits 30 to maybe 40 sites a year, for the entire state of Wyoming.”
Budd-Falen said the state works with private entities.
“The requirement is for the state government to do it,” she said. “State government did what they call a sampling and analysis plan with Western Watersheds to gather the data. But Western Watersheds signed a sampling and analysis plan that said they would not trespass.
“So for Western Watersheds to now claim that this is sort of government-sanctioned war on citizen science, they’re violating their own signed agreement saying they will not trespass.”
Another attorney for the ranchers, Daniel Frank, said that Monday’s meeting was just a step stone in a long battle.
“[The hearing] was basically whether there is anything in the proceedings that would prevent things from going forward,” Frank said. “I don’t think there’s going to really be any change in the stats of the suit.
“I expect the motion for dismissal to be denied.”
Western Watersheds also focuses on livestock management, which state monitoring does not address either, Ratner said. Rangers are immensely powerful in the Cowboy State, where agriculture contributes a mere 2 percent to the state economy.
“It’s basically barely measureable,” Ratner said. “It is not a factor in the state’s economy. It’s essentially meaningless. Yet virtually all of the elected officials are connected with the agriculture industry.
“When the ag industry is sensing a threat, it throws a temper tantrum – in this case a bill – and it instantly gets passed with no significant resistance and is made law. It’s horribly painful to see, our democratic process being so corrupted, as to allow a tiny industry to control legislation that’s passed.
“We generally don’t think of that here in the U.S., but that’s what’s happening here in Wyoming.”