Wyoming Criminalizes Citizen Science

     DENVER (CN) – Wyoming’s criminalization of “citizen science” truckles to polluting agribusiness, scientists and environmentalists say.
     Gov. Matt Mead signed the “Data Trespass Bill” on March 10. Violators can be imprisoned for up to 1 year and fined if they “trespass” to collect ecological data, whether the “trespass” is on private or public land.
     Photos and soil samples used for ecological purposes also are prohibited – even in state or national parks. Any such “data” collected by “trespassing” “shall be expunged by the entity from all files and data bases, and it shall not be considered in determining any agency action,” according to the bill.
     The simple act of collecting such data without permission is illegal, and inadmissible in court, even if it reveals environmental hazards. In addition to prison, a first offense is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000. A second offense is punishable by no less than 10 days in jail and up to a year, and a fine of $5,000.
     Environmentalists claim that most pollution of Wyoming public waters comes from agricultural runoff of manure and chemicals, and that rather than hold ranchers and farmers responsible, the Legislature enacted the bill to put the offenders in charge.
     Gov. Mead’s spokesman Seth Waggener said that the bill is meant to protect landowners.
     “It matters that property owners have the say as to whether someone can come into their house, yard or pasture,” Waggener said. “It matters that those who wish to enter private property seek owners’ permission and respect owners’ decisions. The law protects private property rights in this state. In order for a person to run afoul of this law, that person must have trespassed on private property.”
     But opponents cite the bill’s vague definition of “data,” and say that it appears to criminalize simply taking a picture of Yellowstone National Park.
     “Trespass is as old as the common law from which it stems, and this statute ensures against it,” Waggener said. “To suggest that photographs cannot be taken in Yellowstone because of this law is wrong and is, in fact, inflammatory rhetoric.”
     The bill is a reaction to an ongoing lawsuit in the Wyoming’s Fremont County, in which 15 ranchers sued the environmental group Western Watersheds Project, which allegedly took water samples from their land without permission.
     Western Watersheds, which was collecting samples to send to the Wyoming State Department of Environmental Quality, said it had taken samples only from public access roads and public land, and that the bigger issue was its findings: e. coli bacteria in water, most likely runoff from cattle manure. The bacteria can cause debilitating illness in humans.
     The state’s response was not to protect the public, but to criminalize science, the environmentalists say.
     “There’s a real parallel between what this statute is doing and this effort on the part of the state and the ranchers to exclude this data that the Western Watersheds Project is collecting from inclusion on the impaired water list,” said Justin Pidot, an attorney for the Western Watersheds Project.
     “The theory for most of the ranchers is, ‘You were near my land once, so you must have trespassed.'”
     The 2006 E. coli spinach outbreak, which originated in San Benito County, Calif., began with irrigation water infected with cow manure and urine. It infected 199 people in 28 states, and killed three of them.
     “Federal law has long relied on groups of concerned citizens, like those involved with the Western Watersheds Project, to monitor pollution and enforce rules designed to protect our shared environment,” Pidot said.
     “The purpose of the bill is to discourage this kind of activity,” said Debra Donahue, a law professor specializing in Wildlife Science at the University of Wyoming. “The state would prefer not to have citizens going out on public lands collecting data that could then be used against landowners.
     “The idea is, if the water quality in the streams doesn’t meet standards, that [the ranchers] should do something about it. And whatever action that was, it would have an effect on their ability to raise cattle.”
     Environmentalists are alarmed at the criminalization of research.
     “We are deeply concerned that this poorly written and overly vague bill will prevent concerned citizens and students from undertaking valuable research projects on public lands, out of fear of accidentally running afoul of the new law … and being criminally and civilly prosecuted,” said Sierra Club member Connie Wilbert. “There is no need for this new bill.”
     Supporters of the bill in the overwhelmingly Republican Legislature say the bill simply protects information. Republicans hold a supermajority in both houses: 52-8 in the House and 26-4 in the Senate.
     “This bill does not just address trespass,” said state Rep. Marti Halverson, R-District 22. “When a person trespasses to collect resource data, that person is not only trespassing – he is stealing data that is the property of the landowner.
     “It only makes trespass to collect resource data a specific offense. This is in response to the difficulty of prosecuting these offenses under the general criminal trespass statute.”
     Gary Wilmot, executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, disagrees.
     “We thought it was a flawed piece of legislation from the start,” Wilmot said. “One of our early arguments against this was it’s very different than criminal trespass. Criminal trespass, you have to knowingly be on private land. This law, you don’t have to trespass knowingly, and that’s why we saw it as so risky for wildlife researchers.
     “We’re worried about people making honest mistakes and being guilty of this crime.”

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