Madison River Negotiated Rulemaking Committee comes to Ennis
Future of Madison River in committee’s hands
ENNIS – The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Madison River Negotiated Rulemaking Committee (NRC) brought their third and fourth meetings to the heart of the matter – the banks of the Madison River – on Wednesday and Thursday, March 6 and 7.
The NRC has been charged with an onerous task: To make suggestions about changing regulations for the river to alleviate problems Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) department has identified as issues in a 2015-2017 creel survey, released in December of 2018.
This creel survey, “Angler Satisfaction, Demographic, and Creel Surveys-Upper Madison River, 2015 – 2017,” points to several areas where FWP says there are developing problems on the river. These include:
• A significant increase in fishing pressure on the upper Madison.
• Big changes in angler satisfaction with the Madison River.
• The majority of people fishing the upper Madison River are non-residents.
• Anglers are increasingly dissatisfied with the number of anglers on the river and angler traffic at the river access sites.
Despite these problems, FWP maintains most anglers have a positive view of their angling experiences on the river. The Madison has been regarded as one of the world’s finest trout waters for many decades, and remains a mecca for fly anglers in particular.
The onerous part of the NRC’s task is this: The committee, after reviewing the creel survey’s information, is charged with taking into account all of the perspectives related to any regulation changes for the Madison – the concerns of wade anglers, boat fishermen, worm dunkers, river guides and outfitters, recreationalists, rafters, floaters, preservationists, conservationists, the business community and anyone else who could be impacted by any regulation changes. Whew!
Trying to balance all of these desires and concerns and come up with a package of suggestions that everyone could find palatable is no small undertaking. Performing this duty are the following people: Michael Bias, Twin Bridges, fishing outfitter and executive director of Fishing Outfitters of Montana; Julie Eaton, Bozeman, fishing outfitter; Scott Vollmer, Gallatin Gateway, fishing outfitter; Melissa Glaser, Ennis, Madison River scenic tour operator; Jim Slatterly, West Yellowstone, Campfire Lodge owner; Mark Odegard, Ennis, Madison River wade angler; Charlotte Cleveland, Bozeman, Madison River float angler; Lauren Wittorp, Ennis, executive director of Madison River Foundation; Don Skaar, Helena, FWP, Fisheries Division; and Tim Aldrich, Missoula, Fish and Wildlife Commission.
The NRC met twice previously, on February 19 and 20, in Bozeman, where the committee, led by facilitator Mike Mitchell, the Unit Leader for the University of Montana’s Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, formulated a problem statement, a list of objectives to address and reviewed the possibility of adding more members to its board, including two outfitters and guides associations and the Ennis Chamber of Commerce. After discussion and a vote, all three groups were excluded, something that has not set well with the Ennis business community.
Back in December, when discussing the need for the NRC, FWP Regional Fisheries biologist Travis Horton and FWP Madison/Gallatin fisheries biologist Dave Moser hoped that by March of this year – although there is no official timeline – the NRC could come up with some potential suggestions for changing river regulations.
Any ideas for regulation changes must be in place by summer, so the Fish and Wildlife commission can vote on them and get them into the angler handbooks for 2020, he said.
This follows the path for fish and wildlife regulations cut by the state legislature, and requires public hearings, a review by the Montana Secretary of State, and other input, Horton said. The purpose of this technique is to “…establish a framework for the conduct of “ such rulemaking and allow citizens to participate in the procedure,” according to the state code.
This is not the first time the Madison River’s regulations have been scrutinized. FWP has been trying to reduce “angler conflicts and crowding” on the Madison for nearly 60 years. These efforts have included closing float fishing in certain portions of the river, closing segments of the river to all fishing and taking trout, a one-year moratorium on new outfitters, meeting with landowners along the river, special recreation permits via Bureau of Land Management and other efforts.
The angler surveys are also nothing new. In 1983, a survey on wade fishing vs. boat fishing conflicts took place. In 2008, a survey of resident anglers about the river was conducted. In 2009, visitors were surveyed.
In 2011, FWP began the process of “Madison River recreation management planning,” that included a “scoping process of four public meetings,” an online survey and the formation of the Madison Citizen Advisory Committee (MCAC) in 2012.
This committee offered its recommendations to FWP in 2013, but this effort got cut short due to “agency-wide funding concerns” in 2014, FWP says.
FWP kicked public engagement in the planning process back into action in 2016, culminating in the 2017 surveys for the new report.
An Environmental Assessment, a draft Madison River Recreation Management Plan and proposed administrative rules were sent to the Fish and Wildlife Commission but the commission refused to share these documents for public comment. Instead, it directed FWP to initiate a “negotiated rule making process” to address Madison River recreation issues.
Why did the commission choose this path, instead of releasing the environmental assessment and the recommendations of the 2013 MCAC to the public?
“It was a commission decision,” Horton said, noting that Madison River regulations have been a political hot potato for more than half a century, “I can’t speak for it.”
State statutes say negotiated rulemaking is used “to resolve controversial issues” prior to the formal rulemaking process and that it’s “no substitute for the public notification and participation requirements.” Also, “a consensus agreement by a negotiated rulemaking committee may be modified by an agency as a result of the subsequent rulemaking process.”
Gathering at the Sportsman’s Lodge basement meeting room from 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. both March 6 and 7, NRC met and further discussed the issues and potential solutions it has been charged to consider, and it gave the local community a chance to speak their minds. Those who spoke were given a maximum of two minutes to share their perspectives.
The community turned out in droves. About 85 people packed into the meeting on Wednesday afternoon, March 6.
As deliberations continued through Thursday, March 7, an equal crowd appeared.
Once again, the committee broke into groups and continued to propose alternate options to a variety of the proposed rules. Everything from capping the number of SRPs distributed to limiting certain portions of the river to in-state residents only on certain days was on the table, but few concrete decisions were made.
Facilitator Mitchell took the committee members through a series of exercises designed to simulate how they would be weighing the various alternates and additions they had come up with. He focused on predicting consequences and ranking the various outcomes in terms of importance and potential ramifications.
“I want to be really, really, really clear about this: right now this is a learning exercise about the alternates and how we’re going to score out the options,” he told the committee. “We’re not talking about the final decision analysis.”
Mitchell had the committee members pick five of the proposed alternates before assigning them homework.
Before their next meeting, each member will evaluate all five proposals on a scale of 1 - 5 based on how well they would fulfill the objectives of the Madison River regulations, everything from fishery health to satisfaction of fishermen, residents, guides and shuttle services.
“When you think about it, all decisions are based on values,” Mitchell told the committee. What this is going to do is help us refine our thinking and help us to think about data that will inform this decision.”
Mitchell said that to start, the committee would use the 1-5 scale, but as data was found that could help quantify and contextualize that arbitrary rating. For example, as data on fish populations as a result of fisherman density on the river could be input into the matrix, it would help to justify what rating was applied to that particular alternative.
Recapping the public comments made at Wednesday and Thursday’s meetings, concerns fell into several different camps. Some of the concerns expressed included the following:
A number of people spoke about the lack of Ennis business representation on the NRC committee on Wednesday.
Chris Gentry, Madison Foods owner, led this charge. She asked for some local business owners to be on the board and for an economic impact study.
“The Madison River is the lifeblood of the community,” Gentry said, noting that Madison Foods, one of several major employers in Ennis, employs 5 percent of the local population. “This is a detriment to the community.”
Summers, she said, get her business through the winter, and this includes keeping staff on. She was miffed that no one in the community had been contacted about an economic impact study related to FWP’s management of the Madison. She also urged the committee to take the time to look closer at the impact of any regulation changes on Ennis.
Ennis Chamber of Commerce Director Halley Perry reiterated the concerns of the Ennis business community by having no representation on the NRC and asked the committee to reach out to business members in the community and let them help guide the committee in their decision making.
Danica Lewis, another Ennis business owner who manages vacation property rentals, asked for an economic impact study. While her business was not strictly river-based, every business in town is connected in some way to the river, she said.
Lisa Carruthers, owner of the McAllister Inn, talked about how Madison River fishing affects 90 percent of her business. Her season is June through Sept. 15, she said. Tourism should be represented on the NRC, but instead is ignored. She also pitched for an economic impact study.
Matt Smith, of Ennis, a boat angler of the river, said he believed regulation changes would hurt the economy of Ennis. “Bozeman is huge, and has other resources,” he said, “West Yellowstone has the park and snowmobiling. Ennis is the Madison River; the river is our economy. If you regulate the river, you regulate our economy. Regulations cause harm. The Madison River is on life support. Look at the empty motels and the closed shops now. This is an assault of my way of life,” he continued, asking that two to three Ennis business members be added to the committee and calling for an economic impact study for any changes in regulations.
On Thursday, Virginia City mayor Justin Gatewood, who told the committee that the economic booms and busts of Ennis have county-wide repercussions, as will the committee’s ultimate decisions.
“The economic impact of what’s being proposed here scares me,” Gatewood said. “When Ennis gets cut, Virginia City bleeds, and the reverse is also true. Just be careful; this is going to have real impacts county-wide.” Gatewood also questioned the committee’s methods of defining their objective.
“If it takes you 40 hours to define a problem,” he said. “Maybe you should take a step back to see if you have a problem at all.”
Ruby Spring Lodge owner John Sampson, an outfitter for 25 years, said his operation employs 40 people and pumps some $6 million into the local economy. “I’m community-minded and conservation-minded,” he told the committee. “No one cares as much as local people do, let’s look beyond ourselves, look at what’s best for the river as a whole.” Restricting access to the river doesn’t work, he said, pointing to how a Ruby River landowner lost a court battle to close down access to that river on his property.
Dan Larsen, owner of Madison Valley Ranch, talked about being in the lodge and fishing business for the last 20 years, how he himself is a wade and float fisherman, as well as a commercial user of the river, and how the river and his business has grown and matured over time. He initially thought closing the river to boats from Ennis to the lake could be a boon for his business, since the ranch is along the river. But this was a selfish notion, he said, not in the interest of fishing.
“This is tough,” said Chris Knott, of Four Rivers Fishing Company in Twin Bridges, an 18-year veteran guide. “The Madison is more crowded.” But Knott was not in favor of limiting the number of outfitters and guides on the river or the number of float anglers. Knott suggested leaving the regulations as they stand.
Mike Treloar questioned the FWP data being used and the conclusions being drawn. He pointed to FWP numbers from 2016 that showed of 179,000 total anglers hours on the river, only 11.2 percent were commercial users (guides and outfitters), while the remaining 88 percent were non-commercial users. 2017 figures showed 90 percent of the river use hours were occupied by non-commercial users. “We [commercial users] can makes some concessions,” Trelor said, “but what are you going to do with the public? It’s not just outfitters and guides.”
Joe Dilschneider called the Madison a national treasure and said he was grateful for the committee to take on the task for FWP during Wednesday’s meeting.
He thought regulations based on residency was a mistake, that it would send the wrong message to anglers. A use stamp for the Madison was the only possible solution, he believed, and commercial users should pay or this, non-commercial users shouldn’t, he told the NRC. He also suggested limits on commercial use of the river. “Good luck,” he told the committee.
On Wednesday, Ty Brian talked about the wade section of the river, about 15.5 miles in length and Montana’s stream access law. He asked the NRC to visualize the cadastral and the river limiting portions of the river to boat traffic, one option being discussed, would eliminate about 55 percent of the river, he said, to boats. Also, wading the upper sections of the river, where giant boulders and heavy current preclude safe wading would mean violating the stream access laws. Eliminating boating would have unintended consequences, he said, because boating spreads river use out.
John Way, owner of Ennis’s The Tackle Shop and a hunting and fishing outfitter, also worried about the unintended consequences of regulation changes. Way serves of the state’s Board of Outfitters where he’d noticed a spike in the number of applications to become an outfitter, something he attributed to a potential limit on Madison outfitters. Way also pointed to an editorial in the Bozeman Chronicle, that wondered if Ennis didn’t want the Madison’s business any more. “I’m concerned,” Way said.
On Thursday, Todd France, who owns Blast & Cast Outfitters, reiterated the importance of values in making the decisions with which the committee was tasked. An Ennis native, he opened his business over two decades ago and acknowledged that as a young person, he didn’t have a lot of money to establish himself.
“I want you to think about what’s going to happen to this town,” France told the committee. “Not just economics, but the young people. I want to see them have the same opportunities I had.
Trout numbers, science used
On Wednesday, Jim Wilson lives along the upper Madison, and his concern was bogus FWP fish numbers. He didn’t believe the trout counts done by FWP were at all accurate. He said he’d talked to 50 anglers along the river who’d been fishing the river at various lengths of time, from 1960 forward. What used tobe 30, 40 or 50 trout days are no more. He pointed to a line in the 2015-2017 creel survey that claimed “reduced catch rates are not related to the number of fish in the river,” and wondered how that could be. He also disliked NorthWestern Energy, Hebgen Lake dam owners, paying for the data collected by FWP. An independent group should be doing the study, he said. He wanted the NRC to address fish numbers.
Jim Cramer, a retired scientist, worried about the science, too. He talked about tipping points – things that could trigger changes in the regulations, such as fewer trout – and how populations rise and fall but always return to a data point that is usually lower than where the population began.
On Thursday, Rainbow Valley Lodge owner Ed Williams also cited whirling disease in his comments. Williams was named to the WD task force in 1995 and called it a red line for river health, a tipping point.
“The biological data that I’ve seen to date doesn’t show a red line as there was during the whirling disease epidemic,” Williams said. “Please take your time and take baby steps on this process. Make sure you get it right. There’s a lot at stake in this community we call home.” Williams also asked the committee to consider an economic impact statement.
Before Thursday’s public comment period, the committee set its next two meeting dates, to be tentatively held in West Yellowstone. After the first two days’ meetings in Bozeman and the second two in Ennis, the rationale behind choosing West Yellowstone was an attempt to include as wide a range of stakeholder opinions as possible.
However, some of the public was of the opinion that since the Madison River most directly impacts the economy and tourism of Ennis, the remaining meetings should be held there.
Regardless of location, the next meeting dates will be March 25 and 26, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
It remains to be seen whether the committee will reach a consensus on the rules during those days. If they don’t, they would have the option of scheduling another last-minute meeting to try and reach a decision in time to submit their recommendations to the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission before the commission meeting on April 25 in Bozeman.
If a new rule is not submitted before that meeting, it could not be adopted until the June 13 meeting, which could delay the effective date of the new rules.
For transcriptions of NRC proceedings visit: http://fwp.mt.gov/recreation/management/madison/nrcTranscriptions.html