Madison River Wild

Retired California peace officer Joe Mendoza fly fishes Thursday morning, June 14, 2018, on the Madison River. Meanwhile, behind him, a boat of fisherman float by. Montana officials recently voted to appoint a committee who’s purpose will be to address overcrowding on the river.

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Montana officials want rules limiting outfitter use and addressing crowding on the Madison River in place by early 2020, and they're going to build a committee to craft such a plan. 

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission on Thursday voted 4-0 to begin "negotiated rulemaking," a legal process of forming a committee of members of the public and at least one commissioner to craft river regulations for the commission to consider. Dan Vermillion, the commission chair and a fishing outfitter in Livingston, did not vote. 

Thursday's meeting was the first since April, when commissioners rejected Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' proposal to limit commercial use on the stream following stiff opposition from outfitters. The new committee would seek to include the outfitting industry, and who ends up at the table would be up to the commission. 

Eileen Ryce, FWP fisheries chief, said a committee could craft a proposal within six months of creation, meaning a proposal could be out for public review next summer. If all goes according to plan, it could be finalized during the fall of 2019 and in place by March 1, 2020. 

What will be in the proposal remains up in the air, but commissioners, outfitters and conservation groups agree something needs to be done about crowding on the ever-popular Madison River.  

"It's overused," said Tim Aldrich, a commissioner from Missoula. "The recreational experience that's there has dramatically changed to the point that people are going away, so something must be done." 

Outfitters and a few conservation groups spoke in support of the decision, saying some limits are needed and that the process the commission chose was a good way to develop them. But others argued further debate was unnecessary and that the commission should have OK'd FWP's original rule proposal earlier this year. 

"We wanted the plan as it was moved forward," said Lauren Wittorp, executive director of the Madison River Foundation. She added that the foundation hoped to be part of the committee creating the next suite of regulations. 

FWP's original plan proposed capping the number of outfitters at the current level and capping the number of trips an outfitter could run each day. It also proposed barring guides from one stretch of river each day and barring them completely from the river's lowermost stretch, from Greycliff to Three Forks. 

Significant growth in river use was the reason for the plan. FWP numbers indicate that angling pressure has grown for much of the last decade, peaking at 179,000 angler days last year. Commercial outfitting has also grown, bumping by 72 percent since 2008. Surveys conducted in 2016 along the river showed that commercially guided trips accounted for more than half of angler use at several access points between May and September.

Outfitters were incensed by the proposal, arguing it would harm their businesses and wouldn't reduce crowding. The uproar was so loud the commission declined to open a formal public comment period on the rule proposal, instead sending FWP back to the drawing board. 

The vote Thursday endorses a process for the creation of a new rule proposal, one that they hope will have broader support. State law lines out strict guidelines for negotiated rulemaking and requires that any official proposal that comes forth be agreed to by all members of the committee. FWP has used the process only once before — in creating regulations for game farms. 

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1. 

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