In the ultimate cop-out move and classic pass-the-buck futility, the latest recommendations proposed to relieve the ungodly stress on the Madison River received no action Tuesday afternoon by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Impotence, incompetence, frustration, politics. When I first started fishing the Madison in 1972, none of this mattered. We had open spaces, open waters…it was truly paradise. And now we have traffic jams and subdivisions, boomboxes, drones and Tik Tok. Groovy.

None of this surprises me, nor should it surprise you. We are the problem, too many of us, everywhere, more, more, more. Human beings track record of taking care of the earth is lousy. Just look around.

Apparently, nobody could fix this…not FWP, not fishing guides, not concerned citizens, not business owners, not fat-cat landowners, not conservation groups, nobody. And a whole lot of folks say just leave the river alone, no action needed. Whistling through the graveyard.

So now, since we are helpless to help ourselves, we will turn the fate of the river over to politicians. What could possibly go wrong?

Fish and Wildlife Commission casts Madison River concerns to Legislature

  • 14 hrs ago
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Anglers drift down the Madison River in June near the Black’s Ford Fishing Access Site. Concerns about congestion on the much-beloved river seem destined now to land in the lap of state legislators. Trent Sprague

DUNCAN ADAMS, Butte Montana Standard

Like a rainbow trout bedeviled by whirling disease, the debate about how to best manage user congestion on the Madison River has chased its tail for years.

Both commercial outfitters and recreational anglers on the river fret that the Madison is being loved to death. Some say the river’s magic is diminished by the crowds and its trout population stressed by repeated experiences of catch-and-release.

Numerous management strategies have been proposed through the years but none have gained traction.

It seems there’s no firm footing in sight. The latest recommendations, crafted by a 12-person Madison River Work Group, received no action Tuesday afternoon by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission.  

Instead, following discussions between Fish, Wildlife and Parks staff and the office of Gov. Greg Gianforte, the Madison’s rocky issues will land with the Legislature for further study by a legislative committee, possibly the Environmental Quality Council.  

Commissioner Pat Byorth expressed frustration about deferring once again a decision about managing use of the Madison River.

“We have all the data we could possibly want,” he said, noting it’s time to act.

Byorth made a motion to draft rules for the Madison River based on the recommendations from the Madison River Work Group. His motion received no second and died.

Beginning in September 2021, the 12-person Madison River Work Group focused on providing recommendations to the Fish and Wildlife Commission about managing commercial and non-commercial use of the Madison River.

The Work Group’s recommendations in May included a call for developing a mandatory Madison River Float Permit for recreational floaters as a way to initially gather data about river use and to eventually help manage that use.

For commercial users, the work group recommended capping the number of river trips for an outfitter at the number of trips he or she reported for 2019 or 2020, whichever was higher.

In June, the Fish and Wildlife Commission directed agency staff to solicit public comment about the recommendations. Fish, Wildlife and Parks received hundreds of comments that expressed a diversity of opinion about whether or how to cap outfitter trips and whether to begin requiring a permit of non-commercial floaters.

One commenter, an outfitter client, suggested that the average Montanan might not be enlightened enough to protect the beloved Madison.

“The trip I took with a professional outfitter was one of the greatest of my life – and everything they did was directed towards protecting the resource. I don’t think the general public can be trusted to do the same and river access should be left to vetted operations that can be trusted with this river,” the commenter wrote.

Others who weighed in voiced a different view, suggesting that non-commercial anglers should be favored over outfitters.

“Only commercial trips should be required to be under a permit system,” wrote one. “They make money off of a free resource and therefore take more trips overall.”

Another wrote, “Feel free to regulate fishing outfitters, but not the residents of Montana.”

Several commenters provided enthusiastic descriptions of the Madison River’s capacity to enchant.  

“The Madison fishing experience is unlike any other cold water fishery in the country,” wrote one.

“The fishing was exquisite, but also the breathtaking beauty of the float itself, witnessing the birds along the section, and the peacefulness,” wrote another.

Why would outfitters agree to a cap?

Daniel Larson, a member of the Madison River Work Group, is affiliated with the Madison Valley Ranch, a guest ranch. He said commercial interests have concerns about the quality of the fishing experience and about the fishery itself.

Work Group Chairman KC Walsh, who is also a Fish and Wildlife Commission member, has said that 25 percent of the fish in one stretch of the river show evidence of hook scarring, the likely result, he said, of anglers using treble hooks or performing catch-and-release with poor technique.

There are fears that congestion on the river will worsen.

Bozeman and Gallatin County keep growing. Yellowstone National Park visitation set a record in 2021, before this year’s flooding, and some of those visitors want to fish the upper Madison River.

Some critics of the Madison River Work Group’s composition and recommendations alleged that the group’s makeup was unduly outfitter friendly and that management of non-commercial use could be a step toward unfairly restricting recreational float access to the river.

Concern has been expressed too that restrictions on public use could reflect an income disparity between wealthy outfitter clients and working class Montanans.

On Tuesday, Byorth noted that even though much of the public comment differed about how to approach congestion on the river, a common theme was the responsibility to protect the resource.

“I think we failed to do that today,” he said.