Madison River File

The upper Madison River flows next to Highway 287 on March 27.

State wildlife officials will take another run at proposing regulations meant to ease crowding on the Madison River, one of the state’s most popular fly-fishing destinations.

At its meeting Thursday, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission directed state fisheries staffers to write a new environmental assessment of potential river rules and bring it back to the commission at a special meeting in March.

This will bring the tussle over regulating the Madison back to the place it started. It’s been almost two years since the commission torpedoed a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks proposal for easing crowding on the river, which set a state record in 2017 with 207,000 angler days. The rules — which would have capped outfitter use and prohibited guided fishing in some places on certain days — were widely opposed by fishing outfitters who said the proposals didn’t make practical sense.

Since then, the state has convened and broken up a negotiated rule-making committee, rejected competing petitions and put out a digital survey for public review.

Eileen Ryce, FWP’s fisheries division administrator, said that work gave FWP all the public input it could expect to gather before drafting a new proposal.

“At this point, I’m not sure what we would gain from more public scoping,” Ryce said. “I think we have enough input to draft a proposal for your consideration.”

A date for the March meeting was not immediately set.

The decision came after FWP presented the results of its digital survey to the commissioners. The survey opened in late November and continued through early January, asking respondents to weigh a range of river-related topics.

Don Skaar, FWP’s habitat access bureau chief, said it resulted in about 7,600 responses and another 500 responses that came to FWP via email or physical mail.

He said it showed that most people want to see action taken to regulate commercial use of the river, saying there was “very strong distaste for not doing anything.”

He added that most respondents except for some commercial outfitters were in favor of reducing the overall number of guided trips below 2018 levels.

Skaar said for dealing with social conflict, respondents liked either wade-only designations or a rest-and-rotation schedule — keeping guides from certain sections on certain days. The rest-and-rotation idea was one of the biggest sticking points for outfitters in the failed plan FWP proposed in April 2018.

Skaar said many survey respondents were also interested in preserving the primitive nature of the lowermost section of the river, from Greycliff Fishing Access Site to the confluence with the Jefferson River.

Turning all of that into a new plan is now the job of FWP. Ryce said they expect they can do that ahead of a special meeting in March, and that the assessment will examine the economic impacts any regulations might have on the towns that rely on the river, like Ennis and Virginia City.

“We have heard a lot from the community of Ennis and Virginia City about the economic concerns,” Ryce said.

Commissioner Pat Byorth, of Bozeman, said the information suggested outfitters appeared willing to regulate themselves, which he sees as a good thing. He said he was also wondering about regulations of the non-commercial users, like anglers who don’t hire guides and the lower Madison summertime floating crowd.

“It’s obviously a concern on a lot of people’s part,” Byorth said. “It’s not just the commercial side that’s crowding the river.”

Ryce said there’s not a lot of information available for that sector of use, especially for those who don’t fish, but that FWP had been considering ideas like a no-cost stamp to begin gathering data on the level of use. She said that could be used in the future to begin regulating that portion of use.

Commission chair Shane Colton, of Billings, said he doesn’t think the commission can wait too long to start regulating non-commercial use, and that they’ll have to address it at some point.

“We’re not going to be slowing any population growth in that part of Montana,” Colton said.

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

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