Madison River File

Anglers pause on the upper Madison River on Aug. 1, 2019.

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Montana officials are planning Thursday to discuss two petitions requesting new fishing regulations on the Madison River.

The petitions from outfitters, sporting groups and conservationists call for the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to create new rules addressing guided and recreational fishing.

Both the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana (FOAM) and the George Grant chapter of Trout Unlimited, along with the Skyline Sportsmen Association and the Anaconda Sportsmen Association, are scheduled to present their petitions to the commission at Thursday’s virtual meeting.

Commissioners can either accept or deny the petitions. Accepting a petition would trigger a rulemaking process followed by an environmental assessment.

“This would include ample opportunity for the diverse public interests and perspectives to review and weigh in,” according to a news release from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

FWP was scheduled to present a draft environmental assessment for a river recreation management plan to the commission this June. Presenting the EA would have initiated a process for public comment.

The meeting was postponed until August amid concerns over public participation at a virtual meeting, according to Commissioner Pat Byorth.

“We didn’t want to rush into this because of COVID, but the number of people out on the river changed it,” Byorth said. “There is no more time.”

Byorth said the pandemic has exacerbated river crowding on the Madison, putting more pressure on fish populations.

“The Madison River is the most heavily-fished wild trout fishery in the world,” Byorth said. “We’re in uncharted waters.”

Yet the commission is not dedicating the Aug. 13 meeting to discussing the EA. Instead, commissioners are using the time to discuss the two petitions, which the groups filed earlier this summer.

The petitions would still trigger a public process, according to Byorth.

“These are two different routes, but we’re arriving at the same place,” he said.

FWP attempted and failed in 2018 to introduce new limits on guided fishing and river use. The commission shot down the agency’s proposed recreation management plan at the time.

The petition from FOAM calls on the commission to remove restrictions on fishing from a boat on the stretch of the river between Quake Lake and Lyons Bridge. It also requests that the commission cap the number of commercial fishing trips on the river at 2019 or 2020 numbers.

In 2019, outfitters led approximately 13,900 trips on the Madison, an approximately 13% increase in the number of trips led the previous year.

FOAM also wants the commission to avoid adding “rest-rotation” schedules on sections of the river for at least three years. Months long rest-rotation schedules, which prohibit guided fishing on certain parts of the river on certain days of the week, were proposed in FWP’s last recreation management plan.

Under FOAM’s proposal, outfitters would also be granted several “flex-trips,” or additional guided trips on the Madison. Outfitters occasionally face unexpected circumstances, like river closures, that force them to take clients to alternate locations. The Madison River is a popular alternative among outfitters.

Flex trips would give these outfitters some flexibility during these unexpected circumstances, according to Jason Fleury, FOAM president for the Gallatin region.

The petition also asks for requirements that any recreational user on the river obtain a “no-cost, no-limit” stamp.

The petition from the George Grant chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Skyline Sportsmen Association and the Anaconda Sportsmen Association calls for the commission to cap outfitter trip numbers at 2019 numbers.

It also requests a seasonal rest-rotation schedule in a few sections of the river on Saturdays and Sundays between June 15 and Sept. 30. The petition also promotes the same “no-cost, no-limit” stamp system for river users.

“Both petitions reflect over a year of working with these various groups to arrive at an approach most people could agree on,” Byorth said.

He said all parties agree on two things: putting the health of the river first, and “we can’t do nothing.”

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

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