Some fishing outfitters apprehensive about possible changes, others look toward the future

By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

The Madison River is one of the most heavily fished in the state.

With world-famous trout fishing, it’s an economic driver for the region, benefiting fishing outfitters and shops, motels, restaurants and other businesses. Kayakers, rafters, inner tubers and hikers all use the river corridor, as well.

To prevent it from being loved to death—and the potential social conflicts that come with overuse—Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is developing a draft management plan, with the goal of preserving quality recreation on the Madison and protecting natural resources.

FWP held public meetings in Ennis and Bozeman in mid-February, aimed at gathering public input on recreational use on the Madison River.

The meetings followed a survey from 2008 and 2009 that FWP completed at the request of private landowners along the Madison. The survey considered social issues among different user groups along the 180-mile waterway that runs from Yellowstone National Park to its confluence with the Jefferson River near Three Forks.

On the lower Madison, angler use has been fairly static in the last decade, but recreational rafting and inner tubing have increased. Concerns there include trash, impact on the quality of the fishing, and drinking and driving. On the upper Madison, the main issues are social conflict and congestion at fishing access sites, littering along the river, and trespass, according to FWP river recreation manager Cheryl Morris.

Sixty-two members of the public attended the meeting in Ennis, including private landowners, fishing guides and local business owners. Representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, and FWP were also in attendance.

“We got a lot of really good input,” Morris said.

Some outfitters and guides worried about the possibility of new regulations, which could limit their freedom to guide the certain stretches of river. Ninety-one percent of guided trips occur from June to September, with the Lyons Bridge and Palisades stretch being the most heavily impacted.

“People are understandably upset,” Morris said. “Any time they are seeing that something might be changed and it’s their livelihood [they] might be nervous. Those folks there, they love their river.”

Ennis, also a ranching town, depends on the four months a year of fishing tourism, said John Way, owner of The Tackle Shop in Ennis. “All of the business owners are pretty keyed into that. The river runs right through this town, and it really is the life blood.”

However, as an outfitter on the Blackfoot River, Way saw this same process happen in 2009, and says it’s important for FWP to understand who is really using the Madison.

The meeting in Bozeman also had a good showing, with 74 members of the public packing the conference room at the Comfort Inn. Representatives from FWP, BLM and the Trust for Public Land were also there.

Dave Kumlien, past owner of Montana Troutfitters and an outfitter in Bozeman for 35 years, said the discussions were civilized, and that outfitters and guides far outnumbered other user groups.

Kumlien thinks going through the planning process is worthwhile, but pointed out the issues on the upper Madison, south of Ennis, are different than those on the river north of Ennis Lake in the Beartrap Canyon and below.

In his eyes, there aren’t any resource problems on the upper stretch related to crowding or fishing pressure.

“It’s still a gorgeous river with great fishing. The problem [there] is conflicts between user groups,” he said. “I think that’s a tricky thing for the government to get involved in—regulating social issues.”

Craig Mathews, from Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, has been guiding on the river for 33 years, and runs about 500 trips a year there. He is also general manager of the Sun Ranch, south of Ennis.

“The Madison is responsible for about $30 million a year in the regional economy, and that’s where I think we all want to protect it,” he said. “We have to protect the goose that lays that proverbial golden egg every year.”

Mathews says it’s too early to predict the results of the meetings and the new plan, but it’s going to be an interesting process.

“Once we sit down and agree to work together, I’m totally optimistic about the outcome.”

“A lot of people are just looking at the immediate economy, the recession,” Mathews said. “But [we need to] look toward the future, and toward our kids and grandkids being able to make a living from that river.”

FWP anticipates the planning process will take place throughout 2012 with a final plan adopted in 2013. The next step is to create a citizen advisory committee that will develop recommendations for managing recreation on the river.

“We place a lot of stock in what our citizenry is telling us,” said FWP’s state recreation management specialist Charlie Sperry. “We’ve been quite candid with folks, telling them there is no foregone conclusion. We’re going to use the public to develop this thing.”

Kumlien also wants people to get involved. “We might as well make sure what happens is good for the river and doesn’t impact our ability to make a living,” he said. “It’s going to be tough though, because there are a lot of people that use the river, and a lot of different user groups and interests.”

The issues facing the river aren’t severe now, which makes it a good time for planning, he added. “Before we get polarization in the groups, and people start arguing and not talking.”

“Time is on our side, and we owe it to everybody to sit back and do it right,” Mathews said. “Not only current users, but future users.”

Additional meetings will be held in West Yellowstone (Feb. 28, 6-8 p.m. at the Holiday Inn) and in Whitehall (March 1, 6-8 p.m. at Whitehall High School). FWP is also accepting comments online at fwp.mt.gov/recreation/management/madison/default.html or by email at mrrp@mt.gov.