Upper Madison River File

Ennis resident William Neill fly fishes on the Madison River on May 6.

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Brown trout populations are declining in several southwest Montana rivers and officials are seeking feedback on a proposal to expand brown trout fishing restrictions to protect the species.

Over the past year, biologists with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the U.S. Geological Survey have tracked decreasing numbers of small, juvenile brown trout in several southwest Montana rivers.

Eric Roberts, FWP fish management bureau chief, said the trend is concerning because it’s happening across a wide range of rivers. Low numbers of younger fish indicate that older fish aren’t being replaced, he said.

Rivers experiencing declines include the Big Hole River, Ruby River, Boulder River, Beaverhead River, upper Yellowstone River, Madison River, Shields River and upper Stillwater River, which could all see restrictions following the FWP comment process.

Fisheries staff with FWP are gathering public comments on the proposed changes, which could alter fishing regulations for brown trout on several southwest Montana rivers and their tributaries.

There are a range of options up for review, including seasonal fishing closures, catch and release requirements and evening fishing restrictions. The changes could also apply to stretches of the rivers or their tributaries.

Once the department finishes collecting comments, FWP staff plan to develop proposals for FWP to consider. The commission is set to discuss any changes to fishing regulations at a meeting in August.

People can share their thoughts on the proposed rules by completing an online survey, emailing comments to FWPFishComments@mt.gov or mailing comments to FWP Fish Comments, P.O. Box 200701 in Helena, zip code 59620-0701. They can also attend one of three public meetings.

The public meetings are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on June 22 at Dillon’s Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation building, 6:30 p.m. on June 23 at Butte’s FWP area office and 6:30 p.m. on June 24 at Bozeman’s FWP Region 3 Headquarters.

Though a full analysis isn’t complete, biologists have found that stream flows are a primary limiting factor for brown trout populations.

Still, there are number of factors piling on, according to Roberts. They include changing water temperatures and habitat alterations.

“Over time, anglers have noticed they’re not seeing as many fish as they used to,” he said. “They’re coming to us and saying ‘we have to do something.’”

FWP has long-term plans to address stream flows and enhance habitat for brown trout, but short-term tools are limited. Officials can reduce some stressors by introducing angling restrictions, Roberts said.

Restrictions up for consideration include seasonal fishing closures, which would bar angling for all fish species from Sept. 30 until the third Saturday in May.

Fisheries managers are also considering evening fishing restrictions. The standing “hoot-owl” restrictions would bar anglers from fishing from 2 p.m. to midnight daily.

Roberts said the department hopes to add new restrictions in places where people find them palatable.

If a new rule has unintended consequences, staff will step back and re-evaluate it, he said. FWP would aim to keep any new rules in place for a few fishing seasons so they can observe the effects on brown trout.

Low stream flows across many southwest Montana rivers likely won’t bode well for brown trout this summer season, according to Roberts. This May, FWP temporarily closed a portion of the Ruby River to fishing because of low flows, which is unusual this early in the summer season.

“Where we’re sitting right now, we didn’t have runoff this year. It’s looking pretty dire right now,” Roberts said. “We expect it to be a really rough season.”

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

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