FWP Commission Splits Decisions on Flathead County Wake Regulations

Half Moon Slough will be designated as a no-wake zone with seasonal boating closure; similar proposal for Lake Five denied

By Micah Drew
Lake Five in West Glacier on May 29, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Commission at its Oct. 19 meeting voted to move forward with boating regulations on one Flathead County body of water while denying a second.

The seven-member commission voted 4-3 to advance a petition for Half Moon Slough along the Flathead River be designated as a no-wake zone to the rulemaking process. There will also be a seasonal boating closure on the slough from March 1 to April 15.

At the same meeting, the commission voted against boating regulations on Lake Five in Coram, despite a citizen advisory group recommending wake surfing and wake enhancements be allowed only between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. beginning July 1.

The two separate petitions were sent to the commission last year, and in both cases the commission voted to defer rulemaking and directed FWP to assemble citizen working groups to analyze the requests and make a recommendation.

For Half Moon Slough, a 10-person advisory group convened on Feb. 15 and unanimously agreed that the 32-acre slough should be recommended as a no-wake zone for safety and to prevent shore erosion, with a seasonal closure in place to protect migrating waterfowl. FWP staff noted there was no documented boating accidents or data indicating boating safety issues on the slough, and wildlife managers told the commission there was no data to indicate waterfowl were impacted by recreation, leading the agency to advise against accepting the regulations.

Commissioner Jeff Burrows, who voted against the regulations, was concerned about adopting a piecemeal approach to individual bodies of water rather than a statewide standard, as the commission would be required to vote on each one.

“This seems like a shotgun approach and I think there will be an enforcement nightmare,” he told the commission.

With the petition passing through the commission vote, the agency will work with the petitioners to draft the official language to present to the commission.

For Lake Five, the department convened an advisory group that met in August and September, ultimately reaching a majority decision to recommend the boating regulations.

Lake Five is roughly 160 acres, but is a narrow, Y-shaped body of water that creates natural limitations to recreational use. According to the Administrative Rules of Montana, lakes with public access that are greater than 35 surface acres have statutory no-wake zones within 200 feet of the shoreline. However, eight lakes in Flathead and Lincoln counties are exempt from this rule, including Lake Five.

In the case of Lake Five, the exemption stemmed from a lawsuit that arose between landowners on the lake and FWP more than a decade ago when the department acquired land along the shoreline to create Paul’s Memorial Fishing Access Site. According to a former department attorney, who spoke at the commission meeting, the department advised the FWP commission to remove the statutory no-wake rule from the lake in exchange for opening the access site.

Public comment offered during the meeting was mixed between opponents who did not want government rules interfering with recreational use of the lake, and proponents wishing to bolster boater safety and protect the shoreline from erosion.

“This recommendation fundamentally does respect multiple uses,” said Suzy Boylan, who was a member of the advisory group. “I think this is exactly the kind of thing working groups are supposed to do — take the stakeholders and come up with a plan that most people agree with and can live with.”

The agency recommended against following the citizen’s group recommendation, again citing no documented boating accidents or public safety issues on the lake, as well as no evidence of shoreline erosions.

The commission voted unanimously to deny the recommended regulations for Lake Five.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.