In a move that seemed inevitable for many, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has decided to develop a recreation management plan for the Madison River.
The Madison River is the most heavily recreated river in the state and user conflicts have increased, said Pat Flowers, FWP region 3 director in Bozeman.
“This decision, I would say, has been in process for some time,” Flowers said. “There’s been recognition that there’s been social conflict in use on the Madison for a long time.”
Though FWP has decided to start developing a river recreation management plan, the actual process of developing a river recreation management plan hasn’t started, he said.
“Before we do anything we’re just having our internal staff, who’s going to work on this, put their heads together and lay this whole process out,” Flowers said.
The likely first step will be to solicit applications for a citizen advisory group, which will help determine what problems exist on the river and potential solutions. According to FWP’s guidelines for developing a river recreation management plan the advisory group will make recommendations back to the agency.
FWP has recreation management plans on four rivers in the state: the Beaverhead, Big Hole, Smith and Blackfoot. The first time the agency went through this process was in 1999 when it developed the rules for the Beaverhead and Big Hole Rivers, said Charlie Sperry, FWP recreation management specialist in Helena.
The Beaverhead and Big Hole rules were done under a normal rule making process, Sperry said. But after they were adopted, the FWP Commission decided it would be better for the agency to develop a more comprehensive framework for developing a river recreation management plan, Sperry said. (To see a copy of the administrative rules guiding the process, click here.)
“When the commission adopted the rules for those two rivers it was in the absence of any kind of guidelines,” he said.
The agency recognized conflicts between users were growing on some of the more popular rivers in the state. The framework for developing management plans for specific rivers gave the agency more direction for how the process should go, Sperry said.
The new guidelines were adopted in 2004. The first two rivers to have recreation management plans developed under the new framework were the Blackfoot and Smith, he said.
The emphasis in the process is on public participation, Sperry said.
“What comes out the other end is not entirely predictable, but the process itself is heavily designed to emphasize the public’s role in how their resource is managed,” he said.
John Way, owner of the Tackle Shop in Ennis, was part of the planning process on the Blackfoot River.
The challenges to recreation management on the Blackfoot River in western Montana are similar to what they are on the Madison, Way said. In developing the management plan, the citizen committee listened to concerns from fisherman, outfitters, landowners and other recreationists.
Ultimately, the management plan the agency adopted was geared to spread out commercial use on the river and didn’t really address other public uses, he said.
“They really didn’t do anything to limit general public,” Way said.
Like the lower Madison River, portions of the Blackfoot see a heavy use from recreationists who don’t fish, like tubers and other floaters. And like on the lower Madison River, fisherman avoid the stretches of the river that see more tubes than drift boats – more six packs than fly rods.
“The effort was to spread out the commercial use and I don’t think in the long run it helped because the float fishing commercial use is in a very narrow section of that river, very similar to what the Madison is,” he said.
And though the two rivers are similar, the Madison has more complications, Way said.
The Blackfoot River drew users from a small area compared to the Madison, which regularly sees fisherman from all around southwest Montana and parts of Idaho.
“It has a lot more players and a lot more players that are divided geographically,” he said.
The recreation management effort on the Blackfoot River was a contentious process, but due to the complexities surrounding recreation on the Madison River, the process here could be worse.
“I think the effort on the Madison will be considerably more contentious because the Blackfoot was simple compared to the complexities the Madison has,” Way said.
Joe Dilschneider has guided and outfitted flyfishing on the Madison River for 16 years. He’s seen the fishing pressure increase first hand. If FWP wanted to have the best impact on recreation on the Madison River, it should have started this process years ago.
“I’ve assumed for quite a number of years that this was imminent,” Dilschneider said.
One of the most common complaints he hears about is the number of people fishing on the Madison River is it makes it harder to catch fish. It’s a claim he doesn’t put much faith in.
“I don’t think the decline in the catch rate is directly attributable to that,” Dilschneider said. “It’s probably more directly related to resource issues.”
However, the experience people have on the river is important and there’s no doubt that solitude is a premium.
“The experience is always better when there’s solitude, that’s universal,” he said.
Like Way, Dilschneider sees this management plan process geared primarily toward addressing commercial use on the river.
“You’ve got to be aware that this management plan is aimed squarely at guides and outfitters,” he said.
Three years ago the state implemented a program call the Madison River Special Recreation Permit. It essentially amounts to a tax on the commercial use of the river.
Outfitters are required to pay a 3 percent charge on their gross revenues from days working on the Madison River.
The money generated from this fee has funded a FWP Madison River ranger to help manage recreational conflicts, Flowers said.
However, the SRP program also allowed the state to get a handle on what outfitters are using the Madison River and how many days they’re outfitting, Dilschneider said.
He believes this will better situate the agency to cap outfitter use on the river.
“I believe it was a necessary first step toward this process because it forced everyone to truly documents their usage on the Madison,” he said.
If outfitter days are capped on the Madison, it could help to generate value in an outfitter’s license from a simple supply and demand scenario, Dilschneider said. If you cap the supply of outfitter days, then there’s more demand for them and an increased value in a senior outfitter license.
However, if FWP caps outfitter days, but continues to allow new outfitters on the river, then the supply of days will essentially be unlimited and there will be no demand for an existing license.
It’s these kind of complexities that will make the process of developing a recreation management plan tough, he said.
“From an outfitter’s perspective, the thing we’re most concerned about it is how does it impact me,” Dilschneider said. “It could potentially give my business some value.”
Another aspect of the management plan is the impact to the local economy. Ennis and the Madison Valley economy relies heavily on people coming here to recreate on the Madison River, Way said.
“It’s a significant portion of what makes Ennis tick and I would hate to see something that limited our potential growth and was bad for main street business,” he said.
Sorting these sorts of issues out will be an important task for the citizen advisory committee, once it’s been appointed, Flowers said.
This group will hear public comment, identify conflicts on the river and develop potential solutions, he said.
The next public step in developing the Madison River Recreation Management Plan will likely be to solicit nominees for the citizen advisory committee, Flowers said. The FWP director will appoint the committee. Beyond that, just exactly how this process will take shape is still unknown.