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Commission rejects Madison River recreation petitions, seeks further public input

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Pelicans on the Madison River. PHOTO COURTESY OF UNSPLASH

By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR

BOZEMAN – Progress—albeit small—is underway for a comprehensive recreation management plan on the Madison River, a blue-ribbon trout stream lauded as one of the most popular rivers in Montana.

During the regular Nov. 12 meeting of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, commissioners heard regulation proposals from four stakeholder groups and took public comment from individuals on the topic of three separate petitions.

Following statutory legal proceedings, the five governor-appointed commissioners that make up the regulation decision-making branch of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks were obliged to consider each petition individually and either approve to initiate the rule-making process, or else deny the proposal.

Amid strong representation and opinions coming from the Madison River Foundation, fishing outfitters, the Ennis business community, affiliated anglers and area landowners, the commissioners voted unanimously to deny the three petitions, agreeing that further public input was necessary from interested parties that were not in attendance at the meeting.

“I think petitioners deserve to be applauded for the courage it took to put the idea out there, unfortunately I don’t feel like either of the three petitions as is, or as written, quite gets us to where we need to be today,” said Commissioner Pat Byorth of Bozeman, adding that despite denying the petitions, “I’m real reluctant to delay this.”

“Everything we’ve heard today, or pretty much everything, deals with less than 20 percent of the usage on the Madison,” said Commission Vice-Chairman Richard Stuker, referring to the department’s statistics that approximately 20 percent of Madison recreation comes from outfitted angling and the remaining 80 percent is non-commercial use.

“My concern is I’m not hearing anything about the other 80 percent of usage … The pressure is only going to continue to grow from that non-commercial use,” Stuker added. “We need to get this right. We do need to get it done, I think, as soon as possible.”

Stuker and Byorth echoed sentiments expressed during the public testimony that some form of management action is needed, though some members of the public and commission expressed an immediate need for regulation while others preferred pumping the brakes in order to devise a precise management plan.

“We need a time to coalesce and write our future. Our future is dependent upon that river,” said fly-fishing outfitter and Ennis fly shop owner John Way during public testimony. “I look at this issue as there are too many people.

“Because of the [Office] of Tourism doing such a good job, it’s raised the regional seasonal business economies of the town of Ennis and the guide economies have risen to fill the need,” he added. “This seems diametrically opposed to what Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ mission is. Fish, Wildlife and Parks is trying to eliminate or scale down the number of tourists and the Governor’s own mandate with the [Office] of Tourism is trying to bring more in.”

The three petitions brought forward to the commission were developed by stakeholders and included proposed regulations that would have limited commercial use.

“We submitted the petition … because of our disappointment in the lack of action from the commission,” said Quincey Johnson on behalf of the Madison River Foundation. She is the project and outreach coordinator for the member-based nonprofit, which filed the first petition.

The Madison River Foundation petition urged the commission to initiate recreation rules that would be effective in 2020. These rules were originally proposed in April 2018 and rejected by the commission at that time. They included banning glass on a stretch of the river, establishing wade-only areas, capping the number of commercial-use permits and creating year-round non-commercial stretches of the river.

“To let a river decline before taking action is beyond negligent, and possibly a fatal mistake that both the river and local economy could never recover from,” Johnson said. “In April of 2018, Montanans’ voices weren’t heard, as most Montanans can’t attend meetings from 9 to 5. Not to mention, the conversation around the recreation plan has been far from civil. When people have disagreed, they’ve been threatened with violence, their home has been vandalized and their car broken into. This is not conducive for people who want to speak up.”

During public testimony, landowner Faith Conroy echoed Johnson’s concerns.

“I’m reluctant to speak out because I do live in one of those wade … areas and I have experienced the wrath of some of the guides personally and there has been vandalism on our property,” she said. “In asking guides and their clients to remain in the water I have been verbally attacked … Not all guides are like that, there’s probably just a handful of them, but the problem still exists.”

Steve Luebeck of Butte presented on the second petition, which also urged the commission to adopt the April 2018 rules. This second petition was filed with support from the George Grant chapter of Trout Unlimited, Skyline Sportsmen Association, Anaconda Sportsmen Association and Public Lands Water Access Association.

The third petition was presented by Mike Bias, the executive director of the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana. He offered suggestions to manage commercial use after holding a series of meetings with Montana angling outfitters, ultimately endorsing an allocation-type system as opposed to some form of rest-and-rotation or boat closures.

“We felt it was our prerogative to deal only with commercial use because we are commercial users ourselves,” he said “We’re not bringing any recommendations regarding other user groups.”

While the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association did not submit a petition, executive director Mac Minard was granted time to speak on the organization’s support of a fourth regulation option comprised of implementing a Fishing Access Site ambassador program, stopping the issuance of special-use permits and seriously pursuing recreational land easements that would give wade anglers more access to the river.

“It’s been reminded to me that speed is good, accuracy is better,” Minard said. “We need to be careful … not for the purpose of obstruction or some other derogatory term, but for the purpose of getting it right. MOGA’s interest has to do with a statewide application as well. I think when we’re done here, we hope that we have a model that is transportable and that we can apply as these issues grow onto other rivers.”

Following their rejection of the petitions, the commissioners directed FWP Fisheries Division Chief of Staff Eileen Ryce to collate the most recent inventory of comments and submit a series of draft regulations to the commission by Nov. 15, with the intent to release a selection of these draft regulations for public comment in the near future.

These recent regulation talks are the latest in a long legacy of recreation management attempts on the Madison, which have included surveys, public meetings, public advisory councils and numerous regulation proposals.

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