Madison River File

Angler George Goodell casts into the Madison River on Oct. 21.

Rachel Leathe/Chronicle | Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Montana officials amended and approved new regulations intended to reduce crowding on the Madison River at a virtual meeting Wednesday, wrapping up a three-year long process.

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission spent six hours Wednesday hearing public comments and wrangling with proposed rules to limit commercial use on stretches of the Madison River. They voted unanimously to pass a version of the regulations drafted by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials that will go into place in three parts.

The first part is about gathering data on noncommercial use and setting up a working group for the river. The second would put in place a cap on commercial use and the third would test restricting certain uses on certain days.

“Madison River recreation management is one of those issues where developing a solution that makes everyone happy is close to impossible,” said Eileen Ryce, FWP’s fisheries chief. “In developing a recommendation, our goal was to try and find some middle ground or a moderate approach that addresses the major concerns raised in public comment.”

Now that the regulations have passed the commission, they will go to the secretary of state’s office for filing, according to Becky Dockter, chief legal counsel for FWP. Commissioners said the rules would likely be filed by Dec. 15 and go into effect on Christmas Day.

FWP already drafted a series of rules reflecting recommendations found in petitions from the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana (FOAM) and a coalition of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Anaconda Sportsmen Association and the Skyline Sportsmen Association. The department collected more than 700 public comments on those proposals, then drafted its own set of recommendations.

To give FWP staff time to evaluate the effectiveness of the new rules, the approved regulations will be adopted in phases, according to Ryce. Each phase will be evaluated and regulations will receive a full review every five years.

In 2021, the commission plans to appoint a working group responsible for regulating commercial and non-commercial river users. The working group is expected to include a commissioner and a member of the Bureau of Land Management.

Additionally, in 2021, all non-commercial river users will have to report their trips to FWP officials through a system devised by the department. The department suggested it may track non-commercial recreation via sign-in boxes, rather than mandatory stamps, as petitioners had originally proposed. Trail cameras are also being considered. The data collected from the project will help inform future non-commercial river use management.

In 2022, FWP plans to set the number of guided trips allocated to commercial river users at 2019 or 2020 levels, choosing whichever is higher for the outfitter. The new working group will continue to develop and monitor caps on the number of guided trips allocated to outfitters.

Further caps would be enforced based on levels recommended by the working group and approved by the commission. Information gathered from the non-commercial reporting requirements will allow the department to draft any regulations restricting such use.

In 2023, the department will try out using rest-rotation and walk-wade restrictions for a year to see whether they are effective.

Under the rest-rotation restrictions, fishing outfitters and guides will be prohibited from conducting business on Sundays from June 15 to Sept. 30 on the stretch of the river between the Lyons Bridge Fishing Access Site and the Palisades Day Use Area. They will be prohibited from conducting business on Saturdays during the same time period on the stretch between the Raynolds Bridge and Lyons Bridge.

For the walk-wade rules, between June 15 and Sept. 30 on Saturdays and Sundays, anglers may fish from a boat from Raynolds Bridge to Lyons Bridge. On the rest of the days of the week, anglers can use a boat to gain access to fishing on this stretch, but can’t fish from a boat. Anglers will be prohibited from fishing from a boat on the stretch between Ennis Fishing Access Site and Ennis Lake. 

Both rules go into effect Jan. 1, 2023. 

“Whether or not you support a specific portion of the petitions or proposed rules up for discussion today, and whether or not you support any action regarding the Madison River, Montana law currently charges Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the commission with addressing social issues on rivers in the state of Montana,” said Martha Williams, director of Montana FWP. “While the issues before you today are not easy, and nor do they offer simple solutions, I think all of us on this call really care about crafting the best way forward.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how the walk-wade rules will apply in 2023. Under the rules, anglers will be able to fish from a boat from Raynolds Bridge to Lyons Bridge from June 15 to Sept. 30 on Saturdays and Sundays.

The story also misstated one of the stretches where the prohibition on guided fishing will apply. In 2023, guided fishing will be prohibited on Saturdays between June 15 and Sept. 30 on the stretch between Raynolds Bridge and Lyons Bridge. 

Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.