A divide among Montana sportsmen is playing out at public hearings across the state, including at a recent meeting in Kalispell, as the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks considers extending no-wake restrictions and limiting personal watercraft, such as Jet Skis and WaveRunners, on certain waterways, including the Flathead, Stillwater and Whitefish rivers.
Roughly 150 people attended a Jan. 3 meeting at the state agency’s regional headquarters in Kalispell, and all but one of the 34 who provided public comment voiced strong opposition to the proposed rule changes stemming from a petition known as the Quiet Waters Initiative. Opponents, including a group of state lawmakers from the Flathead Valley, say the proposed changes will hinder recreation opportunities, hurt local businesses and infringe on public access.
“I think this proposed rule is totally unnecessary and totally not in the public interest,” Warren Illi, an avid local outdoorsman and member of Flathead Wildlife, Inc., said. “If this rule is implemented, it will really hurt recreation and fishing and hunting.”
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a national sportsman group headquartered in Missoula with state chapters across the U.S., is spearheading the initiative to address the expanding reaches of motorized watercraft and increased pressure on Montana’s waterways. The initiative seeks to expand limitations on 17 stretches of rivers and creeks across Montana.
The proposal’s main target is personal watercraft, which are defined as recreational watercraft that a rider sits or stands atop, such as a Jet Ski or WaveRunner. Kayaks, canoes and other traditional motorboats would not be impacted, according to FWP.
Under the proposal, personal watercraft would not be allowed on the section of Flathead River from the confluence of the South Fork near Hungry Horse to the Montana Highway 35 bridge in Evergreen. Other watercraft, such as motorboats, would still be allowed, but the proposal seeks to implement a restricted no-wake zone along that same stretch from June 1 to Oct. 15.
The petition also seeks to implement a no-wake speed on the Stillwater River from Upper Stillwater Lake to the confluence with the Flathead River. Personal watercraft would be prohibited along this stretch.
On the Whitefish River, a controlled no-wake zone would be implemented from JP Road to the confluence with the Stillwater River from July 1 through Sept. 15. Personal watercraft would be prohibited along this stretch, which connects to an existing section of river that is already prohibited to all motorboats.
Personal watercraft would also be prohibited year-round on Lazy and Swift creeks.
On the Swan River, a year-round controlled no-wake speed zone would be established from its headwaters to the confluence with Lindbergh Lake, and from Lindbergh Lake to the mouth of Swan Lake. There is already a seasonal controlled wake speed from Swan Lake to Bear Creek between July 1 and Sept. 15.
John Sullivan, chairman of the Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers chapter, said the proposals are the result of reported conflicts that have surfaced across the state, and also a way to be “proactive” and prevent negative impacts in the future. The group says watercraft utilizing new advanced motorized technology, such as “high-performance personal watercraft” like hovercraft and motorized kayaks, are increasingly utilizing sections of Montana waterways that were previously inaccessible to motorized use.
“It’s best to be proactive and see what’s happening in other states and try to prevent those negative things from happening in Montana,” Sullivan said. “Outside the current conflicts that are already occurring because of increased pressure and increased population on our waterways, we see other emerging technologies and different types of new watercraft on streams that we thought were non-navigable, and they’re threatening our habitat and threatening the way we like to do things.”
Yet others consider these potential changes as threatening to their preferred form of recreation.
“They want to protect tradition. That is our tradition,” Brendon Schoening of Dayton said at the Kalispell meeting.
“This group claims to be for public land and public land rights, but it just seems this is something where they just want to tell us how to use the public land,” Ian Wargo of Kalispell said. “I just think this is one sportsman group thumbing their nose at another.”
Among the staunch opposition, 18 Republican state lawmakers from Northwest Montana — state Sens. Chas Vincent, Dee Brown, Keith Regier, Mark Blasdel, Bob Keenan, Al Olzewski, Jennifer Fielder, Steve Gunderson, Mike Cuffe and Reps. Matt Regier, Carl Glimm, Frank Garner, Steve Lavin, Randy Brodehl, Mark Noland, Derek Skees, Greg Hertz and Bob Brown — penned a letter expressing strong disapproval of the proposals.
“Unless there is compelling, site-specific evidence supporting a valid need for restrictions, traditionally accessible public lands and waters should remain open and accessible for public use and enjoyment,” the letter states. “The ‘Quiet Waters Initiative’ does not demonstrate a compelling need, or adequate citizen support, for the closures its backers are suggesting be imposed upon our outdoor recreation communities of Montana.”
FWP officials, including regional staff in Northwest Montana, recommended denying the proposal. The commission still decided to open it for consideration and public comment.
Adding another wrinkle to the mix, Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission, which will ultimately decide the fate of the proposal, is all but empty at the moment. Chairman Dan Vermillion is the lone member still on the commission while the four other seats are vacant due to retirements. Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, will appoint the new commission members but must receive approval from the state Senate, for which GOP lawmakers hold the majority.
Sullivan said the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers chapter has received a significant amount of input on the Quiet Waters Initiative, and he hopes sportsmen and recreationists engage in a healthy debate about the challenges and concerns facing Montana’s waterways.
“We have a lot of support for it in some areas and a lot of opposition in some areas,” he said. “We know there’s more people moving to Montana. We know our streams are under pressure. We feel it’s better to prevent a problem before it starts, rather than try to fix it afterwards.”
The state commission is expected to review the proposal and make a decision this spring.
FWP has extended the public comment period on the Quiet Waters Initiative and is accepting input through Feb. 12. Comments can be submitted to: Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Attn: Quiet Waters Petition, P.O. Box 200701, Helena, MT, 59620-0701; or e-mail QuietWaters@mt.gov.