Montana Moves Forward with Plan to Ease Madison River Crowds

FWP has put forward a proposal for regulating fishing outfitters and easing crowding

By MICHAEL WRIGHT, Bozeman Daily Chronicle

BOZEMAN — Montana is moving ahead with its attempt to ease crowding on one of its most popular rivers.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has put forward a proposal for regulating fishing outfitters and easing crowding on the Madison River, one of the top fly-fishing destinations in the world, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports. Its proposal would cap the number of guided trips, bar guides from some river sections on certain days and create a stamp program for anglers to begin gathering data on non-guided fishing pressure.

The proposal, lined out in a 51-page environmental assessment that considers a variety of regulatory options, goes before the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission in a virtual meeting next week. The commission will vote on putting the document out for public comment, a step that would begin a public review process that state officials hope would lead to regulations going into effect in 2021.

But already there are people pushing to kill the process, arguing that the coronavirus pandemic makes this the wrong time to consider regulating the river.

Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, said because the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the commission should put the process on pause.

Minard said it’s “unbelievable that we’re actually resurrecting this now.”

Others don’t want to see the process tanked, but don’t like what they see in the new proposal. And some feel an urgency to keep the process moving after years of heated debates and negotiations.

Pat Byorth, the commissioner representing southwestern Montana, said the work has already been delayed by a few months because of the coronavirus, and that it’s just time for it to come back up.

“The idea that we’re ramrodding this through is misplaced,” Byorth said. “I think there’s a sense of urgency to get the process out so people can comment.”

It’s been more than two years since the commission rejected FWP’s original recreation plan for the river, which set a state record in 2017 with 207,000 angler days. A citizen committee tried and failed to craft a proposal for regulating the river, and the commission has rejected petitions from groups putting forward their own plans.

FWP put out a survey to gauge public opinion on different proposals, like keeping guides off parts of the river or banning boats entirely from the wade-only sections.

Then it began writing the proposal released recently. The commission is scheduled to take it up on June 12.

The document looks at different ways to cap commercial use and reduce social conflicts between anglers. FWP’s proposal is a package of some of those ideas.

Under FWP’s plan, guided trips would be capped at 2019 levels. The agency would look to the outfitting industry to decide how those trips would be split up between the more-than 200 outfitters who run trips on the river.

Commercial guiding would be banned from a part of the river two days a week from June 15 to Sept. 30, an idea referred to as “rest-and-rotation.” Boats would be kicked out of the river’s two wade-fishing only sections — Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge and Ennis to Ennis Lake — for two days per week for the same time period.

FWP would take steps to improve management of fishing access sites, and any new land acquisitions below Greycliff Fishing Access Site on the lower Madison would have limited development, a move meant to maintain the primitive nature of the river’s lower end.

And FWP would begin a Madison River stamp program. The stamps, which would be free, would be given to all people who fish the river. Stamp holders would have to report their river use to FWP.

The ideas came from people with a variety of interests in the river, said Eileen Ryce, FWP’s fisheries division administrator. She said FWP heard from guides, outfitters and people who fish the river and don’t hire guides or outfitters.

She added that the agency thinks those proposals “really strike that balance between what the non-commercial and the commercial folks want.”

Some on the commercial side already see flaws. Mike Bias, executive director of the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, said his group will oppose putting the plan out for public comment, saying it’s missing some options he’d suggested, like a shorter time frame for the “rest-and-rotation” schedule. He wants to see that happen only in July and August, not from the middle of June to the end of September.

But he doesn’t want the process torpedoed. The need is still there, Bias said, and he thinks attempts to delay it further are really attempts to ensure regulation never happens.

“FOAM thinks we should be responsible public managers and continue on the path we started two years ago,” Bias said.

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