Madison River Environmental Assessment plunge
The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission will wait until August to consider the Madison River Environmental Assessment for public comment.
Community members around the Madison River voiced concerns about opening the discussion of potential river regulations amid the coronavirus pandemic. The FWC’s decision was consistent with the governor’s approach to communities during the pandemic. But disputes over the development of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Madison River Environmental Assessment preceded COVID-19.
“We need an insurance policy that protects biological health with management objectives,” Montana Outfitters and Guide Association President Mac Minard said. “Biological objectives with parameters that are easily measured and monitored.”
Minard shares a view with some stakeholders of the Madison River that FWP’s proposed regulations are an overreach. He said that a management plan for monitoring the health of the river should come before implementing recreation regulations. But according to FWP Fisheries Director Eileen Ryce, the purpose of FWP’s Madison River Environmental Assessment is to develop such a management plan. “The purpose of this was not to regulate the river,” Ryce said.
“The purpose of this was to get the EA released for public comment.”
FWC District Commissioner Pat Byorth said that the dialogue between the public and FWP begins with public comment. According to Byorth, public comment is the time for the public to make effective changes to the environmental assessment.
“Let the EA out so people can talk about it,” Byorth said.
FWP’s 2019/2020 online survey on the acceptability of various management approaches received over 7,500 responses. It was the most participated public survey regarding Madison River management.
Nearly all participants – residents, nonresidents, and commercial outfitters – agreed that the management goal of having a healthy fishery, economic viability and diverse angling opportunities while reducing conflicts was important for the Madison River.
All surveyed groups agreed that the fishery’s health was very important. Commercial outfitters surveyed the strongest on the importance of maintaining the ecological and economic benefits of the river. All surveyed groups marked that it would be unacceptable for commercial outfitter management and upper-river angler use management to be unlimited.
According the environmental assessment draft, FWP interpreted non-commercial anglers’ low marks of acceptability for no limits or restriction as wanting “to see change and active recreation management on the Madison River.”
Surveyed resident anglers surveyed showed the most support on rest/rotation restrictions for social conflict management on the upper river. Residents favored capping non-resident anglers at 50% as an alternative management strategy for angler use on the upper river. Commercial outfitters surveyed all alternatives to outfitter, social conflict and angler use management on the upper river as unacceptable, with the exception of mild support for managing access sites.
“MOGA actually developed that concept, manning fishing access sites with ambassadors” Minard said. “People who had said they experienced conflicts, were overwhelmingly at fishing access sites.”
Commercial outfitting and resident angler use have continued to increase in the last two decades. FWP reported angling pressure more than doubled on the upper-Madison River to 207,000 angler days from 2003 to 2017. Commercial outfitting trips, which usually cater to nonresidents, have grown as the number of anglers using the Madison River grows. But nonresident anglers remained at about 75% of the river use since 1982.
According to Minard, regulations should be directed toward the rapidly growing residential use. Commercial outfitters attract customers who tend to help stimulate the local economy. Tourism is Madison County’s largest industry and the fishing industry contributes a large chunk of the profit.
“There is not one wild trout fishery in the world that can sustain a half-a-million angler days,” Byorth said. “The Madison River is in unchartered territory. Exploitation is heavy and could cause a collapse.”
As a fish biologist, Byorth said signs of fishery degradation have begun to show. The data is not conclusive but according to Byorth it raises some red flags. The Madison River is one the most biologically recorded wild trout fisheries, its records dating back to the late 1950s. Byorth fears that if the fish population collapses, it will be very difficult to reestablish.
“That’s bull****,” Minard said. “I’ve rebuilt several successful fisheries.”
The Madison River Environmental Assessment was originally scheduled in April for the FWC to consider its release to public comment. Byorth said he believed that the desire to avoid the public commenting process is so that a small number of people can control the dialogue.
“It’s a red herring,” Byorth said. “A political advantage.”