If you’ve been paying attention to the ongoing saga surrounding the Madison River Recreation Plan, being directed by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (state agency), you may be thoroughly confused by the whole process. We all are. Even those of us intimately involved in the process are exhausted with it and have trouble keeping tabs on what’s what. Here’s my unfiltered and unapologetic synopsis. Essentially, there are those who feel very strongly that the Madison is “overcrowded.” Mostly special interest groups from out of the area. Certainly, portions of the lower Madison with its close proximity to Bozeman, during the summer, are extremely overcrowded with tubers and fun floaters. But these regulations, curiously, omit anything pertaining to the lower Madison (or the general public who represent 85% of annual use) and its actual crowding issues and focus strictly on the upper Madison, where fishing is the primary draw.
I feel very strongly that the upper Madison is not overcrowded. Busier? Yes, certainly. Popularity in our sport is skyrocketing. No one is denying that. But, as someone who spends well over 100 days a year on the river and sees the anglers come and go, I don’t even think it’s remotely "crowded." This is a situation in which semantics do matter. "Busy" and "crowded" are not the same. And I would venture to guess that most if not all of the clients we had the pleasure of fishing with last year agree. It’s a fast river. Users are quickly dispersed, in contrast to the snail’s pace flow of the lower Madison. Nevertheless, those same people also believe that there is increasing amounts of “conflict” between users on the upper Madison. Again, these claims are mostly baseless and hyperbole. FWP has no documentation or evidence of actual conflict occurring. Curiously, these complaints come from upper river landowners who are lobbying for specific rules to limit access…And yet again, these same landowners also argue that the health of the fishery is at stake and we need to “do something.” Interestingly, FWP’s own fish surveys show abundant populations of trout within historical trend lines.
But these influential landowners with the backing of special interest groups from out of the area have successfully lobbied FWP to “do something.” And that “something” is to limit guides and outfitters, which make up less than 15% of annual use on the upper Madison. The non-guided public make up the rest. So, you might understand why this has been a very heated debate, and why small outfitters like myself are justifiably upset. Do we need to be thinking forward and planning for a future in which angling pressure affects our fishery? Absolutely. Are there ways in which the outfitting community can contribute positively? Definitely. My opposition to this plan is not equivalent to opposition to any plan for commercial use. Unfortunately, suggestions for how to manage commercial use without monetizing that use went largely ignored, thanks to the pressure of some within my own industry who stood to gain from a monetized system. That's certainly the optics, anyway.
In the end, public perception that outfitted use is the primary problem on the upper Madison, won this debate. Commercial use became the target of 100% of the regulations while representing 15% of the use. Interestingly, as mentioned before, this plan in part originated from my own industry. A few of my colleagues who helped write this plan, curiously, are also the largest of outfitters who now control a disproportionate amount of days available in a capped commercial use system on the upper Madison (1 outfitter now has over 10% of the share of days). With outfitted days now essentially monetized, and a dollar amount attached to a day of commercial use, I am naturally suspicious of the scrupulousness of their motivations. An opportunity to work as a guide which was once free for those willing to put in the hard work with good customer service, will now come with a steep price tag for young or beginning outfitters.
So, without further ado, here are the rules adopted by MT FWP Commission:
New Rule I – Commercial Cap
Current Madison River SRP (special recreation permit – outfitters) holders will be capped at their historic use (number of trips) from either 2019 or 2020, whichever was highest.
Implementation of this cap will happen on January 1, 2022.
Mechanics of how this cap will be administered will be determined by a work group as prescribed in New Rule XIV.