Madison Rec. Plan or Wreck Plan?

After the Madison Negotiated Rule Making Committee (NRC) disbanded back in May unable to agree and reach any consensus on how to manage recreational use on the Madison, things quieted down for a while and it was business as usual this season. However, just recently the sleeping dog has woken up again and it sure feels like there is more political pressure right now than ever for FWP to do something!! Current attempts to develop a recreation management plan for the Madison date back to 2010. 
Recently, two separate but basically identical petitions were submitted to the Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission requesting that the FWP April 2018 Draft Management Plans “preferred alternative” be moved forward and adopted into rule for the 2020 season. This is the exact same proposal which was rejected by the Commission at its April 2018 meeting. The petitioners are the Madison River Foundation and a collective group of Butte based organizations including: Anaconda Sportsmen Association, Skyline Sportsmen Association, Public Lands Water Access Association and the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
The “preferred alternative” that these groups are pushing would permit over 2,000% growth in commercial use from 2017 levels, implement a problematic commercial use “rest & rotation” program on the Upper Madison, ban the use of vessels to gain access for fishing from Quake Lake to Lyon’s Bridge, and close the lowest reach of the Madison from Grey Cliffs to Three Forks to Commercial use entirely. These are horrible and dangerous ideas. Clearly the Commissioners thought so too when they rejected them in 2018. Not sure about the strategy at work here by these “conservation” groups, or if these people do math.
In response to these two petitions the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana (FOAM) submitted a 3rd petition and detailed management plan to offer a substantially different alternative. The FOAM plan proposes capping commercial use near current levels and allocating that use among currently permitted Madison outfitters based on a tiered structure tied to individual outfitter historical use. It does not include rest & rotation and maintains the status quo on the 2 wade sections of the Madison. While the allocation details of the current FOAM plan still need some work, the over-riding concepts are solid. This plan is a better alternative than the 2,000% growth and micro-management plan being put forth by MRF and the folks from Butte. 
For the record, my personal position on this has not changed:
  • I support ZERO growth in commercial use.
  • I support keeping the entire Upper and Lower Madison open to boats, and float fishing access year-round.

While not all Madison River outfitters completely agree on either of these points, the vast majority of them support capping commercial use. Reality check: the Madison is crowded! Use is increasing rapidly, and we should not wait another 10 years to deal with it, or sanction another 50%, 100% or 2,000% increase in use before taking action.

The proposal to ban the use of boats to gain access in the upper wade reach of the Madison between Quake Lake and Lyon’s Bridge is perhaps the most controversial of all the screwy ideas in the April 2018 Draft that is being pushed again by MRF and the Butte groups. This proposal would effectively eliminate access to a large portion of that reach which includes a section of public land. And like the proposed rest & rotation concept and closing the lowest reach of the river to commercial use, it will put more people into less space.  Why GGTU and PLWAA are supporting this proposal to reduce public access is a real head-scratcher.

How is this “preferred alternative” going to reduce crowding and conflict? It’s a mathematical fact that it will effectively put more people in less space. It seems clear that these proposals will only exacerbate the issue of crowding which is at the core of this whole issue.

FWP fisheries biologists and administrators have repeatedly said, and demonstrated with data, that recreational fishing pressure is not currently causing any population level biological problems with the Madison River fishery. As anyone who is intimately familiar with this river will tell you, the fishery is still great. This is purely a social issue on the Madison at this point. Any attempt by organizations or individuals to convince people otherwise is misinformed at best, and maybe disingenuous and subversive at worst.  

This entire issue is about maintaining the quality of the recreational experience by addressing “crowding and conflict” on the river. This is a valid and important goal. The quality of the experience on the river by both commercial and non-commercial users is extremely important to our local economies and our way of life. That is why I absolutely support capping use on the Madison at or below current levels now. If not now, then when? We absolutely need to take decisive action to protect the quality of the experience here now, and for future generations. However, the devil is in the details and this needs to be done in a reasonable and thoughtful way that does not cause harmful economic, social or cultural consequences. 

Of course everyone has an opinion on this, and many articles and editorials have been written recently suggesting that guides and outfitters oppose regulation and want unlimited growth. This is just mis-informed nonsense! Nothing could be further from the truth. Commercial users want a plan that addresses all user groups, maintains operational flexibility and historical use, and avoids disruptive micro-management that creates more problems than it solves. The answer is NOT a plan that permits huge growth in use, eliminates large sections of river in which to operate, and micro-manages users in space and time. These ideas are baffling. They don’t address the issue at hand. 

An important fact in this discussion is that over 80% of recreational use on the Upper Madison is non-commercial or non-guided. This is internal FWP data and raises the massively important question of how to deal with the continuing rapid growth of this demographic. 

Bozeman is one of the fastest growing towns in the Mountain West and is showing no signs of slowing. Virtually every new house built in Gallatin County comes with a drift boat and a Labrador named Madison! The population of the county has increased by over 60,000 residents in the last 25 years. These are mostly people drawn here by the outdoor lifestyle: fly-fishing, skiing and hunting…

Although the rapid growth of non-commercial users on the Madison is not directly addressed in any of the plans currently being promoted, it is certainly next up on the agenda and presents a more delicate set of challenges. The most effective and appropriate solution should be market-based and not discriminate by residency status.
The Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission has tentatively scheduled a special meeting on November 12th to address the Madison situation and presumably the 3 petitions they have received. There is lots of backroom lobbying going on now around this issue. I would encourage everyone to do the math and think through the consequences of any proposals that get moved forward. See through the propaganda and seek the truth! I will try to keep you updated and keep it real!

If you want to weigh-in with your own views on this issue, send an e-mail the Montana Fish & Wildlife Commissioners at:

Joe D.
MT Outfitter Lic. #6434