The Madison River is not only a key headwater to the Missouri, it is also one of Montana’s most heavily used rivers.
In the face of mounting fishing pressure Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks are undertaking a new River Recreation Plan to best balance the wide variety of demands placed on the Madison River system.
What’s the Beef?
Truly, if ever Montana had a river being loved to death, it is the Madison. Whether folks fish the scenic Upper with its famed coblestones, riffles, and pool pockets, float the spectacular wilderness and whitewater stretch of Beartrap Canyon, or enjoy leisurely floats on the Lower via a quick commute of Bozeman, there’s no doubt that with over 170,000 angler days alone in 2017 this unique river system is feeling mounting pressure.
FWP has studied Madison angling pressure for years but has never enacted a river management plan. Department data indicates angling pressure increases approximately 15% every two years, and commercial permit applications are up 72% from 2008. Likewise, user surveys indicate a widespread public and user recognition of river crowding and a marked departure from dispersed fishing pressure little more than a decade ago.
These statistics aside, FWP biological sampling also indicates that, for the present, fish populations are not at risk. Rather, the heavy increases in angling pressure implicate a primary driver of the emerging river recreation plan being about minimizing user conflicts and, instead of being completely reactionary, an attempt to be proactive in better balancing recreational use on distinct river segments. FWP staff put forth a hotly debated initial management plan this past April 2018 (unanimously voted down by the FWP Commission) which would have dramatically altered use by, among other things, (1) capping commercial outfitter use, (2) limiting or prohibiting floats on certain river stretches, and (3) creating a rotating commercial closure on different river stretches.
The Murky Future
Now, without clear consensus from stakeholders or the public on recreational management tactics and with lots of hyperbole flying through the air, FWP has elected to move forward with a formal planning process called a “negotiated rulemaking.” The Cliff Notes version of this process means that starting sometime Fall/Winter 2018, FWP will convene a new rulemaking stakeholder committee that will hash out details of an ultimate new rule package that sets forth new management strategies for the Madison. That ultimate draft rule would hopefully be out for general public comment come Spring/Summer 2019, and be implemented for the 2020 season.
Moving forward, Waterkeeper will keep a close eye on the Madison Recreation Plan rulemaking process with our focus being on ensuring available science regarding healthy fish populations, river conditions, and user pressure, plays a key role in determining new management strategies. We believe most Madison stakeholders actually share a common foundation – protecting a resilient, healthy river system that provides multiple benefits to multiple sectors – and remain committed to helping fashion an equitable river recreation plan that emphasizes science-based river protections alongside balanced use strategies.
Stay tuned as we dig into the imminent negotiated rulemaking process for a Madison River Recreation Plan. We hope to plan a public forum this Fall 2018 to share FWP’s science with the broader public and solicit preliminary comments on hot ticket issues!