Madison River Recreational Management Proposed Rules and EA

After decade-long conversations, numerous surveys, and plentiful public meetings and scoping, the time has finally come for the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to take formal public comment on a recreational management plan for the Madison River, Montana’s most heavily used waterways and one of the world’s most fabled wild trout streams.

If you haven’t been following this hot topic, here’s what you need to know now. In August, the commission was presented with two petitions to initiate rulemaking to address the recreational management of the Madison River- one from the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana (FOAM) and the other from various sportsmen associations including the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited (GGTU), Skyline Sportsmen Association (SSA), and the Anaconda Sportsmen Association (ASA). The commissioners approved both petitioners’ proposed rule language for administrative rulemaking.

So what’s next?

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) completed an Environmental Assessment (EA) to identify the three management alternatives and the potential effects of each alternative on recreation, physical environment and natural resources, heritage, and economics of the Madison River. The conditions of each alternative are as follows:

  1. Status quo alternative (no action alternative):
    Existing regulations on the Madison River would be maintained, including:
    • Commercial users must obtain a Special Recreation Permit (SPR) to operate
    • Catch-and-release for trout on the river above Ennis Lake (except for children 14 and younger)
    • Artificial lures only above Ennis Lake
    • Hoot owl restrictions below Warm Springs Day Use Area from July 15-August 15
    • No limit on northern pike downstream of Ennis Dam
    • Boating restrictions in the walk/wade sections from Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge FAS and from Ennis FAS to Ennis Lake
    • Access sites will continue to be managed for unrestricted and free access
    • No new sites will be acquired of developed

The EA indicates that this alternative could cause impacts to the long-term health and sustainability of the fishery. The analysis did not demonstrate that this alternative would achieve the goals of diversifying angling opportunity while reducing conflict or sustainment of the ecological or economic benefits of the river. This alternative assumes continued growth in recreational use by 9.9% annually.

  1. FOAM alternative: 
    • Replace regulations in the existing upper walk/wade section which currently prohibits fishing from a boat or vessel between the Quake Lake outlet and Lyons Bridge FAS. The new regulation would apply to the reach between Raynolds’ Pass FAS and Lyons Bridge FAS, and would institute a prohibition on fishing from a boat or vessel on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, but no prohibition on the other days of the week. This would apply for the entire year.
    • Institute a commercial use allocation system for fishing outfitters including:
    • SRP holders with a valid permit prior to June 15, 2020 will be assigned a number of guided trips that they may operate in a season equal to their historic use of trips in the 2019 or 2020 season. 
    • SRP holders may access up to 10 additional Flex Trips annually 2 out of every 3 years.
    • If use is 0, SRP holders will not receive historic use allocation nor the Flex Trip ability to operate. 
    • If total trips exceed the permitted use allowance, the SRP holder will be subject to disciplinary action or loss of permit. 
    • Guided trips may be transferred at the discretion of the Outfitter only with notice to FWP and only to an already qualified SRP holder.
    • Outfitters that decline over time in their use of guided trips will receive a reduction in their allocation of guided trips. Guided trips which are forfeited will be made available to other SRP holders through a trip distribution pool.
    • Establish a Commercial Use Working Group under the authority of FWP Region 3 Recreation Manager. The group will be comprised of the Recreation Manager, a member of the commission, and at least three Madison River outfitters. The group will establish an appeal process for conflicts and complaints, award guided trips from the trip distribution pool via lottery, review total use and adjust guided trips as needed, and review the number of Flex Trips eligible for outfitter use.
    • Institute a no-cost, no-limit Madison River User Stamp for all people recreating on the river. 

This alternative only partially achieves the goal for recreation management on the river. Economic benefits are sustained, but the diversity of angling opportunities are diminished and long-term health and sustainability of the fisheries are unchanged. Estimated growth under this alternative is a 3.5% increase over the 2019 cap.

  1. Sportsmen Groups/GGTU alternative: 
    • Cap the total number of commercial fishing outfitter trips at 2019 levels (13,909 trips)
    • Create two “rest/rotation” sections where commercial use outfitting is prohibited on different days from June 15 to September 30
    • Create two walk/wade sections from June 15 to September 30 to prohibit the use of watercraft or floatation devices to access fishing on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge FAS and from Ennis FAS to Ennis Reservoir. On Mondays, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays watercraft or floatation devices may be used to access fishing but no fishing can occur from watercraft or floatation devices from the outlet of Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge FAS and Ennis FAS to Ennis Reservoir.
    • New access acquisitions below Greycliff FAS will have limited development to maintain the primitive nature by limiting vessel or float tube access to carry-in only.
    • Institute a no-cost, no-limit Madison River User Stamp for all people recreating on the river. 

The EA identifies this alternative as the best to meet the Madison River goal, and would provide a diversity of angling opportunity, sustain the ecologic and economic benefits of the river, but not change the long-term sustainability of the fishery.

To read the petitions and EA in their entirety, visit:

The administrative rulemaking process is occurring simultaneously for both petitions and the EA. Public comment is open for all management alternatives and the EA until Friday, October 30, 2020.

Comment for Madison River Recreational Management Proposed Rules can be submitted here:  

At the conclusion of the public comment period, FWP will make recommendations to the commission and the commission will make an informed decision whether to adopt all, portions of, or none of the proposed rules, or amend the rule language. Upper Missouri Waterkeeper hopes to see FWP and the commission utilize feedback from public comment in conjunction with its scientific expertise to implement science-based amendments that best protect and conserve the Madison River and its fisheries.