Lack of consensus sinks group seeking to solve overcrowding issues
By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR
BOZEMAN – Before a crowded room in Bozeman on May 2, a diverse panel of citizens aiming to address overcrowding issues on the Madison River voted to disband after multiple meetings failed to yield compromise.
The panel, known as the Madison River Negotiated Rulemaking Committee, was made up of members representing organized interest groups, float and wade anglers, commercial outfitters and guides, landowners and business owners. Established last fall, the committee was charged with coming to a consensus decision—defined by law as “unanimous concurrence among the interests represented”—on recommended regulations for the Madison. The recommendations would have been presented before the Fish and Wildlife Commission, who has actual rulemaking authority.
Over the course of five months, the committee met for four two-day sessions and, while the commission directed to have recommendations by the April 25 commission meeting, disagreements on various solutions prompted members to request a final meeting in May. It proved to be the demise of the committee.
Per a recommendation from U.S. Geological Survey facilitator Mike Mitchel, two consultants were hired by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to guide the May meeting and present information about public policy and options the committee had going forward. Following two hours of exercises intended to promote adult learning, listening and respectful discourse, committee members were visibly anxious to get to the meat of the meeting: the decision to move forward or quit.
“I don’t believe any of us are on the same page,” said Charlotte Cleveland, a Bozeman resident and member of the committee representing float anglers.
Cleveland said part of the problem stems from disagreement over the facts. The committee was given a report from FWP that contains information on river use, however a new report released from the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association disagrees with FWP’s data analysis.
“We’re stuck with crafting a recreation plan without the facts,” she said. “How do you craft a plan when you can’t agree on the facts?”
The report Cleveland mentioned, a position paper released by MOGA in April, criticizes the way in which FWP interpreted angling survey results after the association representing the state’s hunting and fishing outfitters hired a statistician to weigh in. MOGA Executive Director Mac Minard supports the statistician’s findings.
“There’s no technical basis for the term ‘overcrowding,’” Minard said. “This is not an attack on anyone, this is an objective review to determine where we are.”
Minard pointed to FWP’s surveys, saying that approximately 93 percent of responses indicate satisfaction with the Madison River experience. Rather than restrict guided or private angling, he said the association wants to see the department implement a fishing-access-site ambassador program where on-site staff can assist with traffic at boat launches; according to Minard, this is really the only place overcrowding is a clear issue.
Mark Odegard, an Ennis wade angler, said during the meeting that he will maintain efforts to improve the situation on the Madison by verifying river data and conducting angler surveys himself. “No matter what’s decided, I’m going to continue,” he said. “I am going to try to put together facts so I understand them.”
Ultimately the rulemaking committee decided their fate with a silent vote to disband.
“It’s a very challenging and complex issue on recreational use on the Madison River,” FWP Regional Supervisor Mark Deleray told EBS after the meeting. “I’m not sure one process or another would have made it any easier. I’ve heard people say this effort was a failure but I totally disagree. We’ve learned a lot that can be used going forward.”
Each committee member will submit an individual report to the commission by June 1 and during the June 20 commission meeting, commissioners will discuss how to set regulations on the Madison.
FWP has tried several different avenues in order to develop regulations on the Madison River that address increasing recreation pressures and potential conflict among users. In 2012 and 2013, the department appointed a citizen advisory committee, whose recommendations were developed into proposed rules and presented before the commission in April of 2018.
Meanwhile, river use continued to increase, and in 2017 the Madison saw more than 200,000 angler days for the first time, according to FWP. The department says the Madison receives the highest number of angler days of any waterbody in the state.
The commission ultimately voted not to adopt the rules the April 2018 rules after they were met with opposition from the public. Last summer, the commission directed FWP to establish a committee pursuant with the 1993 Montana Negotiated Rulemaking Act.
Per the act, a rulemaking committee is used to supplement government public policy when controversial issues are at stake; however, controversy led to contention within the committee and across the angling and business communities in Ennis.
Originally a 10-member committee, one member, Lauren Wittorp, chose to leave the panel in April and her seat was not replaced for the May meeting. Wittorp also resigned from her position as the executive director for the Madison River Foundation last month after the conservation nonprofit was criticized for her positions on potential regulations.
Fisheries division administrator Eileen Ryce added at the conclusion of the May 2 meeting that public comment can be made both during the June commission meeting in Helena, as well as online.
Visit fwp.mt.gov/recreation/management/madison/nrc.html for more information, transcripts of the meetings or to submit comment.