Public safety continued to be the main concern for the Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Commission at its Aug. 8 meeting in Helena. All five members voted in favor of denying a proposed petition to eliminate or change the no-wake zone at Harrison Lake.
The petition was received at FWP offices on June 11, 2013. It contained two options – repeal the wake restrictions completely, or amend the wake restrictions to 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Since the petition was denied, no further public involvement is required.
Jonathan Skillman, the petitioner from Belgrade, told the commission he understood the wake restrictions were not enforced until a few years ago. He argued that he did not find the lake congested before 11 a.m. and therefore he was more concerned about having more access to the water during morning hours.
“By establishing specific hours for the no-wake speed limit, anglers and others who prefer the lake without high speed boats can be assured of a time to enjoy it,” the commission said in 1987 when the restrictions were established. “Water-skiers who rely on the lake as a major source of recreation are also assured their time every day, including weekends.”
In March of 1987, the commission proposed wake restrictions on all of Willow Creek Arm and Norwegian Arm in Harrison Lake as buoyed in response to a complaint pointing out the danger posed to other water users. Responding to public comment, the commission amended its original proposal establishing a wake restriction from 6 p.m. to 11 a.m. to balance the desire for quiet and the expressed desires of boaters. The restrictions also address safety concerns by prohibiting high speed boating during the hours when fishing is most popular.
Since 1987, Harrison Lake has remained a popular location for both fishing and water skiing, and the potential for conflict between those uses has increased because of greater demand and bigger boats, according to FWP officials. FWP enforcement officers have witnessed this conflict in recent years and have expressed concern about the safety of skiers and other recreationists under the current regulations.
“The number of registered boats in the state has increased substantially,” FWP Warden Captain Sam Shepherd said. “There is a lot more congestion on the water across the state. At Harrison Lake, there is generally one access point.”
Shepherd and Jim Kropp, FWP Chief of Law Enforcement, said that people are generally well behaved, but they do receive a few calls and complaints about people’s actions at Harrison Lake. FWP’s main concern, the two said, is for water safety and personal safety on the reservoir as the number of people recreating there increases and the size, technology and power of watercrafts changes to create larger wakes in the still-narrow areas of the lake. Dry conditions have decreased the water levels of the narrows, too.
Shepherd added that the fishery on Harrison Lake is making a comeback after being hit hard by Whirling Disease, and the lake is getting more angling use again.
“It’s not a question of if there will be a horrible accident, but of when,” Shepherd said. “There’s a considerable difference between 1987 and 2013.”
Dan Vermillion, commission chairman, agreed with Shepherd and Kropp that the issue bears further consideration. FWP officials will continue to keep an eye on Harrison Lake to see if more restrictions are needed.
Wake restrictions were added to Hebgen Lake eight or nine years ago and several more have been established on lakes in the Flathead Valley throughout the past few years, according to Shepherd.
For more information about the commission and the Aug. 8 meeting, please visit http://fwp.mt.gov/doingBusiness/insideFwp/commission/.