Madison River

Boats full of anglers drift down the Madison River on June 4.

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Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission postponed its meeting for later this month because of the virus outbreak, meaning a delay for any decision on new rules for the Madison River.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission had planned to meet March 27 in the state capitol building to cover a few issues, including a new environmental assessment of regulatory options for the Madison River. The panel, which oversees Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, was going to vote on whether to put the document out for public comment.

Now that decision will wait until at least April.

“There will be a delay. Who knows how long it will be delayed,” said Pat Byorth, member of the commission from Bozeman. “It’s just still up in the air.”

The move is just one of a raft of meeting cancellations ordered by state agencies following guidance meant to stem the spread of COVID-19. The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation postponed a meeting of the Montana Forest Action Advisory Council. Several meetings of the Montana Legislature’s interim committees have also been canceled or turned into conference calls, including seven panels that were set to meet this week.

FWP canceled an in-person meeting of the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council, deciding instead to have a phone conference.

It closed its Montana WILD center in Helena and its fish hatcheries and visitor centers. Hunter and bowhunter education classes have been suspended through March 30. Its regional offices are open, but the agency is encouraging people to buy hunting and fishing licenses online.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission was set to talk about tuberculosis surveillance, urban deer in Helena and an addition to a wildlife management area near Butte. But the hottest item on the agenda was the Madison River.

Talk of regulating the river has become contentious over the past two years. Some are pushing for stricter regulatory measures on commercial outfitters and getting boats out of wade-only parts of the river. Meanwhile, some outfitters and people from Ennis have raised concerns about the business impacts of any potential regulations.

FWP staff started working on a new environmental assessment of possible rules this winter. It came after FWP put out a survey to gauge public opinion on a range of options for the river.

Travis Horton, fisheries manager for FWP’s southwestern region, said the document is still in the works, and that the agency had planned to have it ready by the meeting next week. He said they’re still working on it, but he’s not sure when a draft will be ready.

Mike Bias, executive director of the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, said the delay wasn’t much of a surprise after he saw the other cancellations FWP had ordered.

“It just kind of pushes the timeline out,” Bias said.

He added that it might affect some of the details of any plan, like what years of data might be used to set a cap on outfitter trips or angler days.

He said there may be a natural reduction in crowding this year, with some long-distance clients already canceling fishing trips because of virus concerns. That’s creating a whole new category of financial stress for those businesses. But Bias said the river will still need a recreation management plan, and that he’d like to see it in place as soon as possible.

“I think that’s pretty clear that we need that,” Bias said.

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638.