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The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission on Thursday unanimously endorsed the purchase of around 100 acres of land along the Madison River near Ennis.

The land would permit public access to two Madison River tributaries and expand the Ennis Fishing Access Site.

“It’s an incredibly good time to acquire that property,” said Pat Byorth, the commissioner who represents southwest Montana. “I’m just ecstatic about the opportunity.”

Two Creeks Estate, LLC, owns the property, which encompasses areas of O’Dell Spring Creek and Bear Creek, two Madison River tributaries. The property is listed with a local real estate agent.

Now that the commission has endorsed the project, officials plan to negotiate with landowners and gather more information about the site. The process could take months or years, according to Mark Deleray, southwestern regional supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“This is just the first of many steps,” Deleray said.

Public access to the site would be limited to walk-in only and would be managed to protect the fishery, according to an FWP memorandum.

“Securing this property and preserving public access to a spring creek of this caliber is unprecedented in Montana. As public access is continually challenged, securing this property is squarely in the benefit of the public trust,” the memorandum states.

Clayton Elliott, government affairs director for Montana Trout Unlimited, said the O’Dell tributary is spring fed, meaning the water’s temperature stays relatively stable. It also remains clear year-round. This makes it a prime fishing location.

Elliott said spring creeks are rarely accessible to the public as nearly all are on private land, so the creek would provide anglers with a world-class fishing opportunity. He said the creek is also a critical for spawning fish.

“People don’t realize just how much these tributaries help the Madison,” Elliott said.

During public comment, several people praised the proposed FWP acquisition, but one adjacent property owner said he was concerned about it.

John Hauck, who owns El Western Cabins and Lodges, said he worried trespassers might enter his land, as the project’s property line comes right up to his backyard. He said he might work with officials to create a buffer zone.

Hauck said an arrangement El Western has with the Rainbow Valley Lodge lets the property owners control the number of people who fish in the area. According to its website, the Rainbow Valley Lodge charges customers $60 per day to fish O’Dell Spring Creek. Hauck said unlimited public access might endanger the creek.

A partnership of conservation groups, government agencies and ranchers have worked to restore hundreds of acres of degraded wetlands around O’Dell Spring Creek since 2005, after decades of cattle grazing eroded the creek bed and surrounding areas. The O’Dell Creek Headwaters/Wetlands Restoration and Protection Project has involved restoring nearly nine miles of the spring creek channel.

To limit creek degradation, Elliott said FWP will have to work to manage foot traffic, like they’ve done in other areas including the Three Dollar Bridge Fishing Access Site, an access on the Madison River about 40 miles outside of Ennis.

“It’s something we’re going to have to plan for,” he said.

Commission chairman Shane Colton said he was sure FWP Region 3 officials would have open discussions with landowners about the project.

“We want to be good neighbors,” he said.

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

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