As far back as 1979 the concern about angler crowding on the Madison River has been a topic of discussion at the state government level.
Despite meetings among outfitters, guides, anglers, Fish, Wildlife & Parks officials and Fish and Wildlife Commission members in those intervening years, making a decision to deal with the problem has become even more complicated.
On Wednesday in a marathon seven-hour meeting burdened with a sense of urgency, the commission took the first confounding steps to tackle the problem, guided by a proposal from FWP's fisheries staff.
“Making everyone happy is close to impossible,” said Eileen Ryce, Fisheries Division administrator. “We tried to find middle ground to address concerns.”
The new rules for managing recreation on the Madison River include the following:
A cap on commercial use starting in 2022.
The total number of guide trips per outfitter and guide will be capped at the number of trips reported in either 2019 or 2020, whichever number is higher.
A rest and rotation system implemented in 2022.
This means that guided trips will be prohibited between June 15 and Sept. 30 on Sundays between Lyons Bridge Fishing Access Site and the Palisades Day Use Area, and on Saturdays guided trips will be prohibited between Raynolds Bridge FAS and the Lyons Bridge FAS.
This will be a trial effort and reviewed by the Fish and Wildlife Commission in 2023.
Changes to the walk and wade sections on the river that will be implemented in 2022.
Fishing from a boat will continue to be prohibited from the Ennis FAS to Ennis Lake and from Quake Lake to the Raynolds Bridge FAS
The new rule will allow fishing from a boat on Saturdays and Sunday ONLY from June 15 to Sept. 30 from Raynolds Bridge FAS to Lyons Bridge FAS.
The new rules also call for the appointment of a Madison River Work Group by the commission
The work group will have diverse membership including but not limited to commercial and non-commercial users, Madison Valley business people not associated with outfitting, a member of both the Commission and the Bureau of Land Management and an at large member.
The group may develop recommendations concerning the allocation of commercial use trips to outfitters, a process to permit new outfitters, rule language to address recreational use on the Madison River, including future proposals to change the rules relating to the walk/wade and rest/rotation rules, and consequences of permit violations.
The rules do immediately call for mandatory reporting by all recreational users on the Madison River. The department is working to develop a way for this to happen. The information gained will help inform future decisions by the work group and Commission.
FWP had initially considered a Madison River user stamp for anyone recreating on the river as a way to gather more information on how, when and where anglers, guides and pleasure floaters are using the waterway. Instead, the department has proposed using sign-in boxes, like those used by hunters for the Block Management Program, interviews and cameras to gather information.
Any department acquisition for a fishing access site below Greycliff FAS made after January 1, 2021, would be designated as carry-in only without boat ramp development to keep the lower section of the river in a wilder state.
A full review of all the Madison River rules would be undertaken every five years beginning in 2024.
One of the big unknowns that could be worked out in next year’s Legislature is the ability for outfitters to allocate days to other guides or outfitters. The allocation of days are not allowed to be monetized under current statute.
More details on the new rules can be found on the FWP website at: http://fwp.mt.gov/doingBusiness/insideFwp/commission/meetings/agenda.html?meetingId=63453365
Last-minute modifications to the FWP proposal from the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Fishing and Outfitters Association of Montana threw the commission’s Wednesday deliberations into disarray. The two groups are at the center of the latest discussion after they separately submitted petitions to create rules to deal with the Madison River's crowding.
FWP’s proposal was an attempt to mesh the separate petitions which in the beginning contained little common ground.
Late on Monday night the two petitioners combined for a compromise proposal they submitted to the commission for consideration, decrying FWP's proposal in the process.
"We reject wholeheartedly the recommendation from Fish, Wildlife & Parks," said Michael Bias of Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, noting that little of what his group had proposed was contained within the agency's proposal.
Likewise, Steve Luebeck of GGTU criticized the FWP proposal, saying the goal of his group was to not create winners and losers.
"We've come a long way to make this work for everyone," he said.
Both groups also agreed that the commission needed to take action immediately. Should a decision carry over into the new Governor-elect Greg Gianforte administration, they worried that much of the experience and depth of knowledge of the current commission would be lost.
As passed by the commission, the new rules could be in effect before the end of the year.
The most recent effort to deal with the issue of crowding on the Madison River has been more than two years in the making. More than 1,200 pages of comments were reviewed regarding the two petitions. They came from 33 different states and 35 Montana communities, reflecting the river is a “national treasure,” said Don Skaar, Habitat and Access Bureau Chief.
“Most of the comments reflect a personal connection to the river,” he said.
“Some even referred to the river as a she.”