Madison River File

Friends Larry VonWald, Wyatt Deitrich and George Goodell walk down a path to fish the Madison River on Oct. 21.

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Montana lawmakers are considering a bill that would transfer administration of fishing access sites and wildlife management areas to the state’s parks and recreation board. The bill would also expand an annual conservation fee paid by anglers, hunters and trappers to other site users.

Under Senate Bill 153, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, the Montana Parks and Recreation Board, not the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, would govern management of fishing access sites and wildlife management areas. The five-member board already manages state parks.

In addition, the bill would mandate that the parks board provide input on fishing and hunting regulations. The board, not the commission, would also largely govern rules surrounding recreation at the sites — something the commission controls.

At a hearing in front of the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 19, no one came out in support of the bill as it was written.

However, people representing Trout Unlimited, Montana Walleyes Unlimited, the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Montana Wildlife Federation all said they could be swayed if certain amendments were adopted.

Steve Luebeck, of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, said that some portions of the bill are redeemable. However, trying to correct language that “isn’t correctable” might have unintended consequences, and it’d be better “not to attempt that type of effort.”

Transferring control of all lands controlled by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to the parks board would have consequences, according to Luebeck.

“The parks board does not have staff from local offices to manage these properties,” he said. “This kind of looks a little bit like a turf battle between parks and the rest of FWP.”

Amy Seaman, of Montana Audubon, said that she worries transferring management to the parks board would result in more commercial management. She added that the parks division of FWP “doesn’t necessarily have a ton of capacity to carry out extra duties.”

Welborn said he wrote SB 153 in response to rules passed in November to limit crowding on the Madison River. The negotiated rulemaking process was fraught with conflict, as certain business owners felt they were left out of the discussion, according to Welborn.

“It was a social conflict that brought everyone to the table, not necessarily science,” he said. He noted that only 20% of use on the Madison is from outfitters, yet the user group was disproportionately targeted by the rules.

Welborn said he is prepared to tear SB 153 down, as his main objective is to “start a broader conversation” around conflict resolution on and river recreation management.

“Does this bill take it too far? Yes it does,” he said. “Is it a place to start a conversation and bring people together to have that conversation? I submit to you that I’m betting that it does.”

A second portion of SB 153 would change the way people in Montana buy conservation licenses.

As it stands, a portion of the money included in licenses for hunting, fishing and trapping goes toward an $8 conservation license. The money funds things like maintenance at fishing access sites and wildlife management areas.

If Welborn’s bill passes, user groups besides hunters, trappers and anglers would have to pay for the annual license to recreate at fishing access sites or wildlife management areas. The cost of a license would be taken down to $6.

Tubers, floaters, and others who don’t pay into the system are creating heavy traffic at access sites and boat launches, draining the department’s resources, Welborn said.

“That’s fine, but those users aren’t really paying anything,” he said.

Collin Cooney, of Trout Unlimited, said his organization supports the conservation license requirement proposed by Welborn.

“This is something that can bring a lot of money into the state of Montana by hitting all the user groups,” he said. “These resources are at risk of being loved to death… We want people to use and enjoy these resources, but we have to have money to pay for those resources.”

Luebeck said Welborn’s bill is reactionary, as it stems from controversy over recreation on the Madison River. He said he was involved in the negotiated rulemaking process, and though it was exhausting, “overwhelmingly it had a popular outcome.”

“A very small, vocal minority are never going to be satisfied with anything other than laissez faire on the Madison, and that’s where this bill is coming from,” Leubeck said.

“There’s no need to change this process, there’s no need to move it to parks, or create a massive deciding body by merging the commission and the parks board,” he said. “It’s making government bigger, and it’s making it more cumbersome, which is the opposite of what we’d expect from this committee or from this Legislature.”

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

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