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Fish and Wildlife Commission calls for a 'legislative solution' to Madison River crowding

An 11-year-old effort to manage crowding on one of Montana's most popular fisheries stalled out without resolution in late December when the Fish and Wildlife Commission decided not to advance regulatory changes on the Madison River.

In lieu of pursuing a commission-directed rulemaking process, the commission expressed interest in putting the issue on the Environmental Quality Council's plate, a move that would effectively delay any regulatory changes by several years. 

Commissioner K.C. Walsh of Martinsdale voiced support for moving the issue to the EQC, a bipartisan body that includes 12 lawmakers, four members of the public and a non-voting representative from the governor's office.

"Both the department and the governor's office believe this issue will best be addressed by a legislative solution. They're recommending that the EQC take this up as a study bill in this legislative session. I think that's the appropriate result," said Walsh, who chaired the stakeholder-driven work group that was tasked with finding solutions to crowding and forwarding them to the commission.

Outgoing commissioner Pat Byorth of Bozeman urged the commission not to delay rulemaking, citing the volume of research and negotiation that's gone into various commission-directed processes since 2011 and concern that unchecked recreational pressure is compromising the fishery's health.

"There is not a fishery like the Madison that has been so thoroughly researched, and there is literally nothing that the interim committee is going to come up with that [the commission] hasn't already come up with," Byorth said. "This has been going on a long time, and I think it's time the commission show some courage and leadership and just act."

Byorth made a motion for the commission to advance most of the recommendations developed by the Madison River Work Group to FWP for integration into Madison River regulations. Those recommendations include an annual cap on commercial trips and a ban on innertube use on the upper section of the river. Byorth excluded two permit-related recommendations from his motion, saying they lacked public support and needed more consideration. The carve-outs included permit requirements for watercraft rental companies and non-commercial recreationists floating Bear Trap Canyon.

Lacking for a second, Byorth's motion died on the vine. 

Walsh said he didn't support Byorth's motion due to the issue's complexity and concern that it would complicate both FWP's budget and outfitters' books. Many outfitting companies have already started booking trips for the upcoming year, and enacting a cap on annual use right now could complicate trip planning, Walsh said.

Commission Vice Chair Pat Tabor of Whitefish repeated his earlier hesitation with the work group's recommendations: that it would be precedent-setting for other popular Montana rivers. 

"I wouldn't view this as a not ever, just a not now," Tabor said.

In his response to his fellow commissioners' concerns, Byorth referenced his three decades of experience monitoring the Madison. Before joining the staff of Trout Unlimited and accepting an appointment on the commission, Byorth spent the better part of two decades working for FWP as a fisheries biologist.

"My greatest fear is that we're playing Nero, fiddling while Rome burns," Byorth said. "I say that because I've tracked these populations for over 30 years and the fish population is showing signs of exploitation pressure. In another five years, if the population does indeed crash, or continue the way it's going, I think it's incumbent upon the commission to take action."

In an interview with Montana Free Press, former commissioner and Sweetwater Travel Company co-owner Dan Vermillion acknowledged the dearth of easy solutions, but said moving policy-making out of the commission's purview is a mistake.

"This is transferring decision-making responsibility to the Legislature, which I don't think is a good idea with complicated resource issues," he said. "I am a strong believer that the commission - whether it's a Republican commission or a Democratic commission - is a much better place to have these conversations because they are much more connected to the actual users of the resource."

Madison River Work Group member Mike Bias told MTFP he was disheartened when he learned FWP and Gov. Greg Gianforte were pushing for EQC to take up the issue. That will likely delay regulatory changes at least until 2026. Bias said that's too long a wait for his group, Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana. 

"Our primary concern right now is the resource," he said. "2022 was a busy year on the Madison, and if we have another three years of busy, when does the resource start to be impacted?"

Bias said the work group cast a wide net in its search for river crowding management frameworks, looking at rivers in Alaska, Michigan, Colorado and Arkansas. He said he's doubtful that EQC will come up with a solution that hasn't already been considered and vetted by the work group or its predecessor, the Madison River Negotiated Rulemaking Committee. 

Bias added that he fears the issue has become politicized, due in part to the fact that policy-making bodies like the governor-appointed Fish and Wildlife Commission don't want responsibility for imposing a permit-style system on the public. 

EQC is a bipartisan body composed of lawmakers, members of the public and a non-voting representative from the governor's office. It's tasked with studying Montana's environmental health and forwarding policy recommendations to the Legislature and governor.

If EQC moves forward with a study bill, it could recommend changes to Montana law or an overhaul of FWP's administrative rules, according to FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon. The Legislature would then have the opportunity to act on those recommendations in the 2025 session.

"The reality is that the decision how to - or if to - regulate recreational use on our rivers really is not the department's decision," Lemon told MTFP. "In the public trust [model], the department plays the role of trust manager and we manage the trust for the trustees at the direction of elected or appointed officials."

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