Madison River fishing

Anglers pause to fish the upper Madison River on Thursday, August 1, 2019.

HELENA — State wildlife officials rejected three petitions on regulating the Madison River on Tuesday, deciding instead to send a broad set of options for limiting guided fishing and reducing crowding out for public review.

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission voted unanimously to tank each of three petitions aimed at regulating the river. Instead, commissioners directed Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to gather public input on all the regulation alternatives included in the petitions — including potential rules barring boats from the wade-only sections, keeping guides away from certain areas on certain days, various ideas for limiting commercial fishing and ideas for limiting overall angling use.

“It’s a way to coalesce everything we’ve heard,” said Eileen Ryce, FWP’s fisheries administrator.

From there, she said, they’ll narrow down the options and come up with a draft plan to propose to the commission early next year — ideally in February. It’s possible some rules could go into effect in 2020, but any full recreation plan would likely not go into place until 2021, she said.

The decision advances a fight that has been raging for more than a year-and-a-half on the best ways to deal with crowding on the popular fishing stream, which set a state record in 2017 with 207,000 angler days.

It followed three hours of a crowded meeting at FWP headquarters here. Conservationists, outfitters, guides and business owners from Ennis and elsewhere in southwestern Montana filled the main meeting room long before 8 a.m. Overflow seating was set up in the lobby, with a TV and speakers broadcasting the meeting. But even with the few dozen extra chairs, there were people left standing.

The groups behind the three petitions each pitched their ideas for regulating the river to the commission. Two of the petitions restated a recreation plan proposed by FWP in 2018 to cap the number of outfitters and the number of trips they can run per day. It also would have banned boats from two wade-only stretches of the upper river — between Quake Lake and Lyons Bridge and from Ennis to Ennis Lake — and created a “rest-and-rotation” schedule, which would bar guides from specific river sections on specific days of the week.

One of the petitions putting forward that plan came from the Madison River Foundation, which 

has backed the FWP plan from the start, even though the commission rejected it.

The other petition was from a coalition of Butte-area conservation groups that want to see action on the river but don’t fully agree with all aspects of the FWP proposal, such as removing boats from the wade-only sections or leaving room for major growth in the number of guided trips.

The third petition, from the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, called for a tiered permitting system for outfitters based on the number of guided trips they run each year. It doesn’t propose capping outfitter permits — the organization’s leaders say that doesn’t do anything to reduce angling pressure on the river without capping the number of trips an outfitter can run.

Commissioners also heard a fourth proposal from the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, which called for capping outfitter numbers as soon as possible and tasking industry leaders with crafting regulations for the river — an idea abhorred by some who think industries shouldn’t regulate themselves.

Some public commenters from Ennis backed the MOGA plan, urging the commission to give the town and the industry time to shape the regulations for the future.

“The town of Ennis has been under attack,” said John Way, owner of the Tackle Shop in Ennis and executive director of the Montana Board of Outfitters. “We need time to coalesce and write a plan for our future.”

A few public commenters went the opposite way, calling for immediate action on commercial use and getting boats out of the wade-only sections. Jim Wilson, a supporter of the Madison River Foundation proposal, said guides “must recognize the river doesn’t belong to them.”

After more than an hour of public comment, the commissioners said none of the petitions would work on its own. They decided to look into whether they can stop issuing outfitter permits for the river, a move advocated by some who say outfitters have rushed to the Madison in recent years to get on the river before use is capped.

As for the rest, there’s still a ways to go but the commissioners said they think they’re getting closer to seeing a path forward.

“We’re seeing the shapes of a proposal,” said Pat Byorth, the commissioner from Bozeman.

The scoping is meant to help them shape its further. FWP officials expect to have the document detailing the various alternatives ready in a matter of days.

After a number of false starts, the document will represent the first time the state has put regulation options for the Madison River out for review by the general public, Ryce said.

“That in itself is a huge step,” Ryce said.