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Canoe

Sunset sky and canoe at Teslin River at Yukon, Canada.

HELENA — The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission in Helena on Thursday moved forward a hunting and fishing conservation group’s proposal to extend motorized watercraft restrictions on nearly 50 river and stream segments.

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers’ “Quiet Waters Initiative” was opposed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks due to a lack of current conflicts, but commissioners agreed with a majority of public commenters that a public conversation about stream recreation is necessary before regulations become reactionary. A unanimous vote sent the petition into rulemaking, where the commission can consider future public comment in deciding if BHA’s recommendations become regulations.

BHA conservation coordinator Greg Munther testified that in addition to jet skis and jet boats, watercraft technology continues to advance from motorized surfboards slaloming up streams to an ATV that converts to a personal watercraft. Technological advances both present and future mean regulations should be considered proactively, he said.

“We don’t want to be behind the curve and this maintains river opportunities for safety and fish and wildlife resources,” he said.

The state has often acted proactively when it comes to conflicts with technology, Munther said, pointing to restrictions on drones for hunting as one example.

Munther and other commenters called the proposal “conservative” at less than 1 percent of Montana’s stream miles. “Common sense” limits on horsepower, seasonal restrictions and watercraft types maintain the status quo users currently enjoy, they said.

“We dealt with a number of these conflicts and I’m really impressed, think it’s a really good step to be proactive and it’s time to look at river recreation,” said former commissioner and state Sen. Bob Ream.

Representatives from the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana and American Rivers also threw support behind moving the proposal forward, along with several other BHA members and river users.

FWP Enforcement Chief Tom Flowers presented on behalf of the agency, telling the commission that such restrictions are unwarranted at this time.

“We asked the regions, ‘Is there a conflict there?’ and the answer was ‘no,’” he said. “It’s not that it couldn’t happen, and even though we realize the potential is there for issues, our general stance is this is unwarranted at this time.”

FWP called the recommendations “drastic” in agenda materials and suggested that existing laws against negligent and reckless boating address public safety.

A pair of opponents testified against moving the petition forward, arguing that restricting horsepower in swift currents could result in safety issues and that restricting motorized users went against multiple use principles.

“(The petition) is making rules for a problem that does not exist and restricting the public from public waters,” said Paul Rossignol with Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.

Commissioners voted 4-0 to approve the petition for FWP rulemaking, meaning a final decision will not come until future meetings when public comment is considered for draft and final proposals.

“I agree this is a conversation worth having, we need to be proactive, but we need to make sure there is still multiple use,” said Commissioner Richard Stuker of Chinook.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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