Did Wyoming really just outlaw citizen science?

I first heard about the new Wyoming law #SF0012 through the Slate article summarizing it as a criminalization of citizen science. There’s a real danger that it could be interpreted and implemented that way, but let’s try and give Wyoming the benefit of the doubt for a minute. The text of the law only requires that scientists (citizen or otherwise) acquire written or verbal permission from landowners for collecting data on their land. It goes on to define what “data” means, including photographs in a fairly wide definition, and “collecting” as taking data with the intention of turning it over to a state or federal agency. It also defines trespassing and outlines the consequences for those who fail to receive permission. In short: the data collector could go to jail and their data will not be admissible in legal or policy proceedings.

At the core, the law re-hashes a fairly common definition of trespassing. The key part of the law that’s new is that the data won’t be admissible in court and the act of turning them over to federal or state agencies will make you an outlaw. Part of me thinks that data collectors, including citizen science groups, should be asking permission to go on someone’s land. This is both to keep ethics at the forefront of our scientific endeavors and for the personal safety of scientists (ranchers are known to carry shotguns, after all).

The other part of me, however, puts the law in the full context of which it was written: as a means of enabling ranchers to not fence their cows out of streams and never have watchdogs checking on the E.coli public health impacts of those cattle swimming in downstream residents’ drinking water. In these cases, offending ranchers would never let a scientist on their property to take water samples, and a trespassing hiker might be the best way to collect data on water quality in a privately-held landscape. In this case, the offenses of the trespassing should certainly not negate the evidence of another crime. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

The law was clearly written to damp the efforts of water quality citizen watchdog groups, as evidenced by their definition of “collect”. Science can and does happen outside of agency collaborations – and these kinds of citizen science projects theoretically can still happen under this law provided the data is going to academic or nonprofit scientists for analysis. In these cases, it also would matter less if the data collected can’t be used in court. Only when the data in question uncovers some other crime – like water quality violations – that the scientist should be concerned about being an outlaw. However, this distinctly severs the link between citizen science and management applications, which is one of the strongest means of empowerment that participation in citizen science can provide.

So for all of you Wyoming residents collecting water quality data, your best recourse for the moment might be to obtain permission from federal landholders to test the water directly downstream of the offending farms. It’s entirely possible you can still get the data necessary to bring a lawsuit to fruition. And to landholders out there – be open about giving permission for science to happen on your land. It’s for a good cause, and that’s a better, healthier Wyoming.


Several folks have pointed out how much this law will also (and perhaps primarily) benefit oil and gas industry. The same concerns and thoughts apply here, as the legal mechanisms are similar – namely, the Clean Water Act. It’s just a very different set of pollutants, and ones that are typically harder for citizen scientists to analyze themselves. Corporate entities are also way harder to acquire permission from (or even find the contact person in order to ask), making the law even more challenging in mining contexts. Silver lining here is that the Bureau of Land Management actually owns a good deal of the nation’s mineral resources, which are contracted out to oil and gas firms, so there may be an additional avenue with sympathetic ears in which to gain permission to access those lands.


  1. Annie · May 11, 2015

    In the Slate article, it says “It makes it a crime to “collect resource data” from any “open land,” meaning any land outside of a city or town, whether it’s federal, state, or privately owned. The statute defines the word collect as any method to “preserve information in any form,” including taking a “photograph” so long as the person gathering that information intends to submit it to a federal or state agency.” I haven’t read the actual text of the law, but if this is correct, then going downstream to federal land wouldn’t be an option either. Maybe have to wait until the stream crosses the state line? (Leaving aside the giant mountain of constitutionality issues..)

    • Amy Freitag · May 11, 2015

      I’d encourage reading the actual texts of the law, as many lawyers are probably doing as we speak. By my read of the law, if you get permission from the landowner, then it’s fine. Most of the text of the law is tresspassing lingo – that’s the legal tool they’re using to potentially prosecute people.

  2. MattK · May 11, 2015

    I’m a bit confused still because the Slate article’s opening example is of the Yellowstone Geyser. So does this apply to public (state or federal) lands or only to privately owned lands? If you take a water sample at a public road crossing, does the law apply?

    • Amy Freitag · May 11, 2015

      The law says you need permission. Period. Lawyers are currently talking about whether federal public lands with open mixed-use designation will need additional, specific permission for scientific samples. Until that gets tested in the courts, I’d say get it just to be safe.

    • MattK · May 11, 2015

      So basically, pending clarification, if you use citizen science atlasing apps like ebird or herpmapper (which do share data with governments) on public land in Wyoming you could potentially be jailed. What about hunters and fishermen that complete harvest surveys or present specimens to Fish and Game officials (as the law apparently requires for Bighorn Sheep)? This is all scientific data potentially analysed and used by the state.

    • bluegrassbluecrab · May 16, 2015

      “Could be” – yes. But it’s public land, so trespassing you might not be. Fishermen fall in a completely different category because navigable water is considered to be in the public trust, and property rights look very different. My guess is that public lands managers will still welcome citizen science data with open arms, and in fact will fight to continue to make it easy for volunteers to help them out. It’s probably fine as is, but to be even more clear, all they have to say is “we allow citizen scientists to take samples”.

  3. Isab · May 11, 2015

    If the federal government hadn’t weaponized the EPA, Laws like this would be unecessary, but think about what you have just said here.

    In your opinion, the government, under the guise of science, and safety should be able to conduct warrantless searches of your property.

    It is no different from a government agent conducting a no knock raid to see what you might have stored under your sink.

    If there is E. coli downstream, than testing downstream should be sufficient to detect it.

    If it never leaves the property, it is none of your business.

    • Amy Freitag · May 11, 2015

      I’m not saying trespassers shouldn’t be punished. In fact, I absolutely think they should. However, using trespassing laws to make data unavailable in prosecuting potential other crimes seems like you’re trading in one crime for the other – and I think that both should be prosecuted. I think in the end, however, the downstream testing will suffice and this law will just create more paperwork for agencies holding public land who now have to write a new set of permits for data collecting.

  4. birdyokel · May 11, 2015

    Hello – It is important to understand the culture in Wyoming. Folks there are fiercely protective of their private property rights. Wyoming has been a ‘fence out’ state since its inception. Just because there is not a fence does not mean someone has the right to walk there. If you don’t want a cow on your land, then fence it out. A long understood tradition of the ranchers there. I knew some folks canoeing that stopped during a storm, standing on the bank of a river waiting on others to catch up. They were fined for trespass when they arrived at their public pull-out destination.

    Wyoming residents are also suspicious of outsiders and the government. A lot of westerners don’t like interference in things that happen on their lands or in their waters. I have friends who have fiercely defended native fish populations when federal entities wanted to introduce non-native, though similar, species to the detriment of the natives.

    Wyoming also has some of the oldest water laws in the country. A seemingly harmless act of breaking up a beaver dam could have a domino effect of consequences. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when this law was drafted, discussed, and passed. Some of the elements may not necessarily have been for the reasons you think. Some elements may be exactly what you think but with a completely different agenda.

  5. Brad Dawkins · May 11, 2015

    Would this prohibit Google Earth data (for example) from being used by government scientists to study climate change (for example)?

  6. anneclewis · May 12, 2015

    The law does not only make data collected via trespassing illegal, it also criminalizes the collection of such data. It’s not the mere act of trespassing, it’s the actual act of monitoring that is criminal in this case too.

    (c) Trespassing to unlawfully collect resource data
    and unlawfully collecting resource data are punishable as
    (i) By imprisonment for not more than one (1)
    year, a fine of not more than one thousand dollars
    ($1,000.00), or both;
    (ii) By imprisonment for not less than ten (10)
    days nor more than one (1) year, a fine of not more than
    five thousand dollars ($5,000.00), or both, if the person
    has previously been convicted of trespassing to unlawfully
    collect resource data or unlawfully collecting resource

  7. CJO · May 12, 2015

    So, particularly given Wyoming’s culture (which made possible the law) and examples like the one birdyokel provided (“I knew some folks canoeing that stopped during a storm, standing on the bank of a river waiting on others to catch up. They were fined for trespass when they arrived at their public pull-out destination.”), what if tourists started to avoide the state? How badly would the state’s economy be hurt by that?

  8. Inyo · May 12, 2015

    Blm land is public land. I’ve got as much right to sample water there as a rancher does to run cows (with a permit). Any implication otherwise is unconstitutional.

  9. A. Scott · May 14, 2015

    This law is ridiculous. There are plenty of trespass laws on the books – there was ZERO need for a new law. And whether the person trespassed or not has zero bearing on the value of the data nor should it bear on its admissibility.

    This is bad law intended only to protect special interest groups.

    And to be clear its is admitted criminals like Peter Gleick from the Pacific Institute that this bill targets. I am as conservative as they come and was part of a group that investigated Gleicks despicable and unlawful actions. And I tend to highly support ranchers and farmers property and water rights.

    But this is completely bad policy and law and should not be supported by anyone.

  10. jamesofthecommons · May 21, 2015

    First and formost let me say that I believe in property and privacy rights as much or more so than the next person. However, I also believe in allowing maximum freedom for all individuals, not just those wealthy enough to own large blocks of land. Many nations in Europe,particularly in Scandinavia have what are known as right to roam laws, and we Americans who claim to be citizens of the freest nation on earth, would do well learn about these laws and put them in practice in this nation. While each nations version of the right to roam law varies to some extent, a common element of each variation is that individuals have an inate right to roam, and or travel through, large blocks of undeveloped and semi developed lands, ”even privately ownend lands” in an unabstrusive and non destructive manner. Another words, in Norway for example, you are allowed to travel through and even camp in a privately owned forest, and as long as you do not start a fire, pollute, steal valuable property, or enter the land owners immediate yard and or dwelling ,you are not tresspassing and are perfectly within the law. No one in Scandinavia would ever be arrested and or fined for trespassing, for merrly attempting to ride out a storm on a riverbank ! As far as I am concernend a state without some sort of freedom to roam law ,can not boast of being a free state. If you love freedom then by all means urge our government officials to draft and pass some form of a right to roam law right here in the USA.
    As for this new law in Wyoming; it seems to me that if this law applies even to publicaly owned lands, the law then is clearly unconstitutional. Also if it does apply to publicaly owned lands, then I can not help but wonder, just maybe the powers that be, are attempting to hide something, or at least stem the flow of information ? Information that is, concerning, climate change maybe, or perhaps Yellowstone ?! At any rate, the way I see it, if you are a ranch owner and someone collects scientific data from your property, a damed mile or more from where you actualy live, you or no one else has been harmed, so please, get over yourself ! If we are to be a free people, freedom then has to extend to the people on both sides of the no-trespassing sighns !

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