A storm approaches Three Dollar Bridge in August 2019 on the upper Madison River.

The fight over crowding and guided fishing on the Madison River never really ended, and the opening bell for the next round will ring Tuesday morning.

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission will take up three petitions proposing regulations for the popular fly-fishing destination at a meeting Tuesday.

Two of the petitions — one from the Madison River Foundation and another from a coalition of groups led by the Butte-based George Grant Trout Unlimited — restate a plan state biologists proposed in 2018 to cap the number of outfitters, remove boats from two wade-only river sections and bar guides from certain stretches on certain days of the week. The river foundation is still pushing that plan as-is, while the groups behind the other petition say they don’t agree with all its provisions.

A third petition, from the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana (FOAM), doesn’t mess with the river’s wade-only sections or keeping guides away from places on certain days. It does propose a complex, tiered permitting system and an overall cap on the number of guide days, along with some educational programs for all anglers.

And if that’s not enough for you, the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association has drafted what it calls “the fourth option,” though it’s not filed a s a formal petition. The group’s plan would cap the number of outfitters, ask FWP to create a river ambassador program and look into acquiring some sort of recreational easement to give anglers bank access in the wade-only sections. Then it calls for outfitters to get together to craft further regulations on the commercial fishing industry.

No obvious middle ground has yet been found on how to regulate one of Montana’s busiest rivers. But the renewed pushes from all sides will force the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission to do something.

Pat Byorth, the Bozeman-based member of the commission, said each petition has enough opposition that “it would be difficult” to get the commission to advance any of them as-written. But he thinks middle ground may even be closer than it appears, and that the panel could put out a suite of options it sees as workable.

“I think we’re kind of on the verge of, not making everybody happy, but finding ways to take a big step forward,” Byorth said.

Forward movement is something just about everyone involved would welcome after more than a year-and-a-half of contentious talks, digital vitriol and uncertainty over what the state would do to the river.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists have long been worried about ever-increasing pressure on the upper Madison, the 50 miles of river from Quake Lake to Ennis Lake that’s seen as one of the premier fly-fishing destinations in the world.

Long one of the busiest spots in Montana, the river peaked at 207,000 angler days in 2017. Guided fishing has grown over the years, too. There were more than 12,000 guided trips in 2018. This year, there are 231 active outfitters on the river. Biologists worry all that pressure could harm the fishery.

After the Fish and Wildlife Commission torpedoed the FWP proposal in 2018, it formed a “negotiated rulemaking committee” consisting of 10 people with various interests in the river, including three fishing outfitters. The contentious talks deadlocked over a number of issues. The most prominent was the push to ban boats from two river stretches where only wade-fishing is allowed — from Quake Lake to Lyon’s Bridge and from Ennis to Ennis Lake.

The Madison River Foundation dug in on that point, drawing vitriol from outfitters and others who accused them of trying to shutter public access to that part of the river by prohibiting the use of boats to taxi between wading spots.. Amid the fight, several board members left the foundation. Its executive director ultimately resigned from the foundation and the rules committee. Not long after, the committee called it quits, producing no plan its members could agree to.

Rumors of action on the rules circulated this summer, and some observers expected the commission to move the process forward in August. But those rumors never came to pass. Instead, the petition-slinging began.

The Madison River Foundation was first to submit a petition, sending it in late September. Quincey Johnson, the foundation’s project and outreach coordinator, said the group wanted action, so it turned to the state’s formal petition process to force it.

“We wanted the commission to do something,” Johnson said. “We wanted them to put the health of the river before the interests of outfitters.”

She said the organization didn’t budge from the original FWP plan because it wants the commission to at least put it out for public comment.

“In our eyes, we wanted the public to have their say on what the experts thought were the best options,” Johnson said. “We figured, you know, stick with the experts on this one.”

The next day, the second petition was filed by the Butte-based George Grant Trout Unlimited chapter, Anaconda Sportsmen Association, Skyline Sportsmen Association and the Public Lands and Water Access Association.

The details are the same as the proposal submitted by the foundation, but the groups say in a letter accompanying the petition that they don’t agree with all provisions of the FWP plan. Mark Thompson, president of George Grant Trout Unlimited, said one example is the proposed ban on boats in the wade-only areas. Thompson said the groups are “not big on limiting access.”

He said they thought something needed to happen on the river. He was happy to see something put forward by the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, and he said it’s “a decent plan.” He wants to be able to work with the industry on a solution.

“All our groups are willing to work with the outfitting community,” Thompson said. “We’re not trying to kill an industry. We’re just trying to stop the bleed.”

The FOAM petition was filed in early October, and some are doubting the legality of it and whether the commission should even consider it. It does offer a different approach than the other petitions on limiting commercial use — capping guide days and allocating them to outfitters based on their historical use.

Opponents of this idea fear making the days worth a certain amount of money. That’s the case on the Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers, where outfitters can sell the days they’re allotted when they quit.

Mike Bias, FOAM’s executive director, said his group’s proposal does its best to limit that.

“It doesn’t avoid any kind of monetization. It minimizes it as much as a free enterprise, limited availability, can be minimized,” Bias said.

FOAM’s plan doesn’t have the full backing of the outfitting industry, though. Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association (MOGA), said the FOAM plan is unfair because it lets small outfitters grow but doesn’t let big outfitters grow.

MOGA didn’t file a petition, and it wants the commission to go a different route. Its plan asks the commission to cap outfitter permits as soon as possible and tell FWP to do a few things. One is create an ambassador program for the river meant to deal with social conflicts — an idea also backed by FOAM. Another is explore recreational easement options on the uppermost wade-only section, where people worry boats are the only way to access prime spots.

The third is establishing fishery management goals, such as fish-per-mile or catch rate targets that could trigger more serious management actions if they signal the river is in decline.

Then the MOGA plan says the commission should task outfitters with writing regulations for themselves, coming up with a “plan that everybody in the industry agrees to.”

Some fear that letting the industry regulate itself would be giving it far too much power. Johnson, of the river foundation, sees danger there. She is also disturbed by the management goals idea, which MOGA called a “biologically based insurance policy.” She sees it as a way to delay action until there’s a decline in the fishery, which she said would be too late.

“At this point, I really just hope the commission puts the health of the fishery before anything else,” she said. “I hope they realize we need regulation now before we reach that tipping point.”

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

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