Commercial outfitters request a presence in future planning

By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – On April 19, the Fish and Wildlife Commission unanimously rejected Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ newest proposal to add commercial fishing regulations to the Madison River. The decision came after the commission received wide opposition from fishing outfitters.

“We’ve heard loud and clear that we are directed to wade into the social issues of our rivers,” said FWP Director Martha Williams after the commission heard public comment during their regular meeting in Helena. “What I’ve heard is it’s not that we shouldn’t do it, but that [the Madison River Recreation Plan] needs more work and more input.”

A large group of commercial fishing outfitters traveled to Helena to speak in opposition to the proposal, which would have limited commercial fishing, and added new walk/wade and boating regulations.

The proposal included establishing a cap on the number of commercial outfitters; restricting commercial use based on the reach of river and 2016-17 levels of use; designating one stretch of the river every day for non-commercial use; prohibiting any commercial use from Greycliff Fishing Access Site to the confluence of the Jefferson River to preserve its uniquely primitive nature; prohibiting the use of any vessel or float tube to gain access for angling in the two walk/wade sections to help eliminate conflicts between boats and wade anglers; and prohibiting the use of glass containers on the river.

Those in opposition pointed to current statistics that say total commercial use on the Madison amounts to roughly 13 percent overall in an entire year.

“Eighty percent or more of the use on the Madison is by private noncommercial users,” said former director of the Madison River Foundation Richard Lessner, during the public comment portion of the meeting. “I’m not sure that targeting merely commercial users of the Madison will get at the problem, which is some crowding and conflicts during a six-week period in the summer.”

The failed proposal came in response to years of public input indicating a decline in the user experience on the Madison due to crowding and high levels of commercial outfitting.

In 2012, the department organized a citizen advisory committee tasked with aiding in the development of a new recreation plan. While the citizen committee represented fishing outfitters, landowners, business owners and anglers, concern was raised during the commission meeting that the committee’s recommendation was five years old.

“What we do here could be the blueprint for other [rivers] in the state,” said Vice Chairman Richard Stuker. “We need to take the time to get it right moving forward.”

Big Sky local and owner of Gallatin River Guides, Patrick Straub, gave input during the meeting, stating, “We as outfitters all want the same thing: a resource that is protected and an upward process of going from guide to outfitter to growing a business.”

Following the commission decision, Straub, who has guided on the Madison for 22 years, added, “I believe we all feel it’s time we regulate commercial use on the Madison. … There will need to be a shared sacrifice by all so we protect the river and we can all enjoy it.”

In an interview with EBS, Region Three Supervisor Mark Deleray said the department will begin development of another plan by convening a new citizen advisory committee as soon as possible.