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FWP hosts virtual public hearing on Madison River recreation

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A fisherman tries their luck on the Madison River. PHOTO COURTESY OF MONTANA FISH WILDLIFE & PARKS

By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF

BOZEMAN – For more than 60 years, recreation on the Madison River has been a widely-discussed topic by public users, commercial outfitters and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials alike due to its increasing popularity. Although a heavily discussed topic, this year marks the first instance that two submitted rulemaking petitions and an Environmental Assessment have been distributed for public review and comment. Both petitions attempt to address the recreation goals of the Madison River and propose rules that would better protect the increasingly-trafficked waterway.

“What we’re trying to figure out is what is the best way to handle recreation management on the river,” said Montana FWP Fisheries Division Administrator Eileen Ryce.

Ryce noted that although this is the second instance rulemaking petitions have been submitted to FWP this year, no others have progressed to this point.

The two separate regulation petitions were submitted by the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana and another, collectively composed by the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Skyline Sportsmen Association and the Anaconda Sportsmen Association. The petitions were originally presented to the FWP Commission in August. They progressed to the public comment period that began on Sept. 25 and will conclude on Oct. 30 along with the FWP composed EA.

“A lot of people from very different groups that use the river are now coming together and more cohesively saying something needs to be done,” Ryce said.

The EA outlined the recreational goal of the Madison River as “1) ensures long‐term health and sustainability of the fisheries; 2) diversifies angling opportunity while reducing conflicts; and 3) sustains the ecological and economic benefits of the river to Montanans and our guests.” 

FWP hosted a virtual public hearing to gather additional comments on the two petitions as well as the EA on the evening of Oct. 20. Ryce said as of Oct. 21, FWP has received more than 400 public comments, not including those verbally stated at the public hearing.

“Hopefully we can put some rules in place that will protect that experience, as a high quality experience, for all recreational users for years to come,” said FOAM President Jason Fleury.

“I just hope we can find [a] balance that everybody has to give up a little,” said GGTU President Mark Thompson. “I mean that’s the only way that this can work.”

According to the EA, key points of the GGTU petition include, limiting commercial fishing trips to the 13,909 guided trips that occurred in 2019 for future years, the addition of a river recreation user stamp for all recreationists and instituting a development restriction to preserve natural areas past the Greycliff fishing access. 

The most heavily debated portion of GGTU’s proposal involves the implementation of sections of river that would prohibit commercial use on certain days of the week from June 15 to Sept. 30. One identified restricted section spans from Varney Bridge to Ennis Fishing access and the other runs from Lyons Bridge to the Palisades day use area. All forms of commercial use would be restricted on specified days by the GGTU proposal, not limited to only commercial float fishing expeditions.

Additionally, it would, “Create two walk/wade sections from June 15 to September 30 to prohibit the use of watercraft or floatation devices to access fishing on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge FAS and from Ennis FAS to Ennis Reservoir. On Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays watercraft or floatation devices may be used to access fishing but no fishing can occur from watercraft or floatation devices from the outlet of Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge FAS and Ennis FAS to Ennis Reservoir. This would replace existing walk/wade section regulations that prohibit fishing from a boat at all times of year,” according to the EA.

Both Lyons Bridge and Varney Bridge are frequently used access points along the Madison River for commercial fishing trips to launch and retrieve their watercraft. They are the two most highly-trafficked in regard to percentage of total use of all access sites along the river, accounting for 13.3 percent of use at Lyons and 12.7 percent at Varney, according to FWP data.

Fleury said the FOAM petition is aimed to ensure the commercial users needs are addressed when considering possible recreation regulations for the Madison River. According to the EA, key points of the FOAM petition include, capping commercial fishing trips based on either 2019 total guided trips completed or from 2020 trip totals, creating a Madison River user stamp for all recreationists to help gather non-commercial user data and eliminating the GGTU proposed watercraft prohibited section of the Madison River between Raynolds Pass to Lyons Bridge.

“Our greatest hope is that, with having surveyed our membership and having 78 percent of them on board that we’ve come together to be a proactive player as part of a solution for the plan, as opposed to just trying to fight it and deny that there is an issue maybe today and certainly down the road with the crowds on the Madison,” Fleury said.

FOAM’s proposal would also create a method for allocating allotted commercial trips to the various outfitters that operate on the Madison River.

“The social conflicts and all the things that come about because … it’s being loved to death is one thing,” Thompson said. “[But] having a world renowned fishery like the Madison and the potential that we do get too much pressure and it does crash, to me that’s my biggest fear.”

Both Thompson and Fleury acknowledged that their parties’ respective petitions weren’t without flaws. Aside from the petitions, FWP outlined a third option for recreation management in the EA. That option would maintain the current Madison River fishing regulations.

FWP data in the EA reveals a consistent increase in use on the Madison River since 2011. Angler days on the lower section of the river hovered around 40,000 in 2011 and increased to more than 61,000 in 2017. On the upper section, the increase is even greater, growing from more than 80,000 user days in 2011 to approximately 207,000 in 2017, according to the data. 

“Montana has done an excellent job of promoting outdoor recreation and to that end, every river has gotten busier,” Thompson said.

Current 2020 FWP fishing regulations prohibit fishing from watercraft in two portions of the Madison River. One such section spans from the outlet of Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge and the other runs from Ennis Lake to Ennis Bridge.

Any proposed regulations would not be valid in the Bear Trap Wilderness area as it is under jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, excluding it from any implemented regulations by FWP.

The next phase of the rulemaking process occurs Nov. 18 at the FWP Commission meeting where Ryce and the FWP department will present and make an official recommendation for proposed recreation management on the Madison River that the Commission will then vote on. Fleury is hopeful action will be taken, stating that a regulatory starting point is necessary.

“At that point, there will be some sort of version of the rule [that] will come out the other end of the Commission meeting and then that’s what will go to final rulemaking with the Secretary of State,” Ryce said.

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