Guest view: Inaction on Madison River rules not an option


Over the past several years our groups, George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Butte Skyline Sportsmen, Anaconda Sportsmen and the Public Land/Water Access Association watched as Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wrestled with managing recreation on the upper-Madison River. There have been multiple citizen advisory committees and one substantive proposal from FWP Region-3. Yet, the issue remains unresolved and recreation is growing rapidly, exceeding 200,000 angler days in 2017, more than all angling pressure in regions 6 and 7. By comparison, the Big Hole River has about 75,000 angler days a year.

Frustrated by the lack of progress and the acrimonious interaction surrounding the Madison advisory committee, our groups sent a letter to the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to communicate the concerns of rank-and-file public anglers. We stated that many of our members will not even visit the upper Madison River due to intense crowding, and this displacement of unguided local anglers is simply unacceptable.

Most of the complaints arise from the intense floating pressure on the river and a recent survey revealed that 54% of resident anglers are dissatisfied with the floating pressure. While guided clients account for only about 10% of all anglers on the upper-Madison River, another recent study revealed 62% of all boats on the upper Madison River were outfitting-related. Stated another way, the 90% of anglers that are unguided account for only 38% of the floating pressure. This disproportional outfitting impact cries out for sensible regulation of commercial use.

Outfitting pressure on the upper Madison River doubled between 2010 and 2017, and current trends indicate that outfitting pressure could double again the next ten years. Meanwhile, an increasing number of local anglers are being displaced. FWP’s current laissez-faire management approach is simply not working. In this spirit, we offered a substantive proposal to address the problems. We proposed a moratorium on commercial special use permits on the upper Madison River. We proposed limits of three outfitted trips per outfitter, per day on six different stretches of the upper Madison River, and we proposed a rotating non-commercial stretch 6 days per week to provide the unguided public a refuge from the intense commercial use.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The proposal is similar to the current regulations on the Big Hole River, which are effective and popular. When the Big Hole recreation rules were first adopted in 1999, the Big Hole and upper-Madison Rivers were on a similar trajectory. Since the Big Hole recreation rules were adopted, the two rivers have diverged. Angler days on the upper Madison have nearly tripled, while use on the Big Hole has grown gradually. Outfitting has rapidly increased on the upper Madison River, but it’s capped on the Big Hole River. Outfitting still thrives on the Big Hole River, but it’s managed and much of the past conflict has been resolved. The Big Hole rules didn’t crash the economies of Butte, Dillon or the Big Hole valley.

It is true that the biological health of the upper Madison River is good and fish counts are strong, and that’s a tribute to decades of good fisheries biology work. However, strong fish numbers don’t always correlate with angler satisfaction. There are other important factors, including quality experience, relaxation and freedom from competitive environments.

We offer our proposal because the time has come to address the problems on the upper Madison River. Our members are part of a large segment of anglers that have been displaced by the current intense floating pressure, and we are seeking a solution. We urge the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to take action. Inaction is simply irresponsible, and no longer an option. If you feel the same way, please let the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission know by emailing them at: