Madison River Wild

A fisherman tries his luck despite heavy winds April 10 on the Madison River.

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The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission has rejected a suite of regulations to limit outfitting on the Madison River, sending state fisheries officials back to the drawing board. 

After hearing several fishing outfitters voice opposition to the rules, the commission voted 4-0 Thursday to reject the proposal. Commission chairman Dan Vermillion, an outfitter who lives in Livingston, did not vote.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks prepared the draft regulations in response to increasing angler pressure on the Madison, where angler days and outfitter numbers have increased significantly in the last few years. Travis Horton, regional fisheries manager for FWP, said the rules were a "balanced first step toward addressing recreational conflicts."

But more than a half-dozen fishing outfitters told the commission the plan unfairly targeted commercial guides and didn't make practical sense. Several said they agree that use should be limited but that FWP's recommendations weren't the right way to do it. 

"I think the proposed model will not work and won't meet those goals," said Joe Dilschneider, owner of Trout Stalkers and Madison River Fishing Company in Ennis.

Angling pressure on the Madison River has been growing for the better part of a decade, peaking at 179,000 angler days last year. Meanwhile, commercial outfitting has increased by 72 percent since 2008, according to FWP. 

The proposal for the Madison came five years after a citizens council made some recommendations for dealing with crowding on the Madison. The panel didn't propose any limits on commercial use.

FWP's plan would have capped the number of outfitters at the current level, which is a little more than 200. It also would have limited the number of trips an outfitter could run each day. The plan broke the river into seven sections and proposed barring commercial guides from one section per day, a rule the outfitters said would likely exacerbate crowding on the open sections.

It also would have banned anglers from using boats to access water in the Madison's two wade-only sections and banned guiding from the river's lowermost stretch, from Greycliff to Three Forks.

Opponents of the plan also raised concerns that it didn't do anything to limit non-commercial anglers, which still account for the majority of anglers on the stream. 

"We're leaving 80 percent of the users unaffected by this," said Richard Lessner, a former director of the Madison River Foundation. 

FWP was asking the commission to open public comment on the plan, which it hoped to implement in 2019. The commission, however, didn't think it should advance in its current form. 

Commissioner Shane Colton, of Billings, said recreation plans on other rivers were more fully vetted before they came to the commission, and that the Madison proposal needed more work.  

"I think the absolute lack of any support here today is telling," Colton said. 

No one spoke in full-throated support of the plan during Thursday's meeting, but it had some public support. Lauren Wittorp, executive director of the Madison River Foundation, said in a statement that the commission made the wrong decision in voting down "a fair, well researched plan that included public input."

"The commission and those who voiced opposition have put the Madison River fishery in jeopardy," she said. 

FWP will likely come back to the commission with another regulation proposal later, but it's unclear when that might happen. Horton said they'll gauge the public's reaction to this decision and then decide how to move forward. 

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1. 

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