Recommendations to solve ‘perceived crowding’ on the Madison River announced

FWP work group hold Q&A session in Ennis, request public comment

In the second of five meetings held by Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), the Madison River work group explained their recommendations to stemming ‘perceived crowding’ on the Madison River. The FWP Scoping Meeting Handout consisted of thirty-six pages of recommendations, fiscal notes, and staff assessments. (Available online at go.usa. gov/xhZvd) It detailed eleven recommendations that included: new commercial use permit; implementation of 2019/2020 commercial use cap; transferability of commercial use trips; opportunities for new entry commercial users; commercial watercraft rental delivery permits; river use data collection system; noncommercial float permits; vessel requirements for the upper river and Non-commercial Bear Trap Canyon float permits.

In what some residents assumed was a public comment meeting was actually a questions and answers format only. Though phrasing it ‘in the form of a question’ seemed to thwart that scenario and keep the conversation going. The first question of the evening came from a gentleman that wondered if there was “a conservationist in the work group”. The answers: “Of the twelvemember group there are two biologists… I consider myself a conservationist”. One work group member expanded on the response; “Fisheries staff have not been able to identify negative impacts on the fish population of the Madison River’s current forms of use [and there will be] continual monitoring.” He went on, “Noting, that as use continues to increase there is that potential that we could start to see that [negative] population impact, but right now we don’t show data either way.” A follow up question regarding the decline of brown trout was met with a reiteration by Deb O’Neil of FWP, “there is no data [that shows] detrimental use to the resource”. The response seemingly did not suffice as the gentleman immediately left the meeting.

The decline of brown trout in the Rockies has been widely reported. A February 9, 2022, Field& article began, “Scientists from the University of Montana, the U.S. Geological Survey, and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks have concluded a study on climate change and its affect on five trout species in the northern Rocky Mountains. The group has deduced that the declining distribution of native trout is due to warming stream temperatures and competition from non-native trout species.” The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, June 25, 2021, stated “Graphs presented at the Montana FWP meeting…showed the overall abundance of brown trout dipped in 2021.”

The Madison River work group members addressed every recommendation and fielded multiple questions throughout. There were a couple of points that were repeatedly brought to their attention, however. The numbers the permit caps will be based on, if approved, would be 2019-2020, unless different historical use numbers can be submitted. They stated that the those were the years with the most complete data and the pandemic was taken into consideration. The question came from an attendee who pointed out that for new businesses those years may have been their first years of operation, thus making the number somewhat low. Moreover, they added, it takes a business an average of five years to become established, and that should be considered. In response one member declared that commercial use of the river doubled in just over five years.

Another point of contention was recommendation number eight, The Fluid Transferability of Allocated Trips. This, being crucial to outfitters, can still be bought or transferred but must remain within the determined caps. Additionally, [it] ‘is consistent with recently passed legislation (SB275) now codified in MCA Section 37-47-310. (FWP Scoping Meeting Handout).

MT SB275 titled: Generally, revise the board of outfitters and outfitting laws and enforcement. ( sb275/2021)

MCA Section 37-47-310 - Except as provided in subsection (4)(b), if changes are properly reflected in an operations plan, the partial sale or temporary transfer of a hunting or fishing outfitter’s business may not be prohibited. (b) Transfer of river-use days for the Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers may only be sold or transferred as part of a business in its entirety. On the sale or transfer of a fishing outfitter business on the Beaverhead or Big Hole rivers, the outfitter who sells or transfers the business shall notify the new owner that the use of any transferred riveruse days is subject to change pursuant to rules adopted by the fish and wildlife commission, and that a property right does not attach to the transferred river-use days.” ( MT/text/sb275/2021)

Some attendees took this to mean that permit days could only be transferred as a whole (the entire business) not in partial increments. When asked for clarification the work group explained that is only the case on the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers, whose tourism has dropped since, according to one of the members.

The attendees were directed to the next recommendation, #9: Use it or lose it. This recommendation reads in part that if river use permit (RUP) days are not used within three years, they are forfeited and put back into the allocation pool. The work group believes this will help eliminate the permits being held so they will increase in value.

Many recommendations are offered for non-commercial, recreational river users, including but not limited to, permits for people using tubes that will be allowed in specific areas. Residency will not be considered when issuing recreational permits.

There was a poignant exchange of information and a robust conversation. The work group, one year into their three-year term, made it clear that this is just the first step, which is largely aimed at gathering information, explaining that we “have to start somewhere”.

Upon a request for comment, Montana State Representative, Ken Walsh expressed that he felt the work group did a good job and gave some “solid guidelines to at least consider”. Walsh went on to talk about the Madison River and its livelihoods and lifestyles it provides. “There are no easy answers, but workable solutions” he said. “Don’t wait until after they vote, get educated and participate!”

The Madison River work group recommendations are just that, recommendations constructed within the parameters allowed, including Senate Bill 275 (SB275). The public comment period, which began Aug. 15, ends Oct. 14, 2022.

Option to view the recommendations and leave comments are available online at or by emailing Comments may also be mailed to Montana FWP, Attn. Charlie Sperry, PO Box 2000701, Helena MT 59620-0701

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The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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