HAMILTON — Proposed changes limiting the number of guided floats on the West Fork and the upper sections of the Bitterroot River have generated a significant volume of comments from concerned citizens, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
For some, those restrictions go too far. For others, they miss the point. Put together by a citizen advisory council, the changes proposed largely favor the rights of private wade anglers and floaters over the rights of guides to float the river in an unlimited manner.
“So far we have received a dozen comments from the first week,” said Christine Oschell, the river recreation manager for FWP. “I would say right now it’s about 50-50 between people opposed and in favor of the regulations. Then the other people think something has to be done, but are not sure what it is.”
According to Oschell, most comments are coming in toward the end of the period.
“A dozen in a week is quite a bit so far,” Oschell said. “I expect quite a bit of comment by the end.”
In its environmental assessment, FWP broke the West Fork and the Upper Bitterroot into four distinct sections. Section 1 is from Painted Rocks Dam to Applebury Forest Service site, Section 2 is from Applebury to Trapper Creek Job Corps, Section 3 is from Trapper Creek to Hannon Memorial, and Section 4 is from Hannon Memorial to Wally Crawford.
The changes proposed would require licensed outfitters to acquire a permit and limit the number of floats they can take per day on particular sections of the two rivers. During the peak season, outfitters would be prohibited from floating particular sections on certain days of the week.
In addition to the regulations on outfitters, all floating would be prohibited on Fridays from Painted Rocks Dam to Applebury Forest Service site from July 1 through Sept. 15.
The West Fork is a unique Montana river in its usage, according to the FWP environmental assessment. Few respondents in FWP surveys were scenic floaters or tubers. Instead, at least 75 percent of the people who answered their survey were outfitted anglers, which led the state agency to believe local anglers were being displaced.
Eddie Olwell has been an outfitter for 17 years and was a past president of Trout Unlimited. Olwell participated in the citizens advisory council with the FWP that came up with the proposed regulations, and while he agrees that something needs to be done to reduce overcrowding, he's not sure this is the answer.
“I felt the process was fair,” Olwell said. “Based on the growth we’ve seen I think that regulations are a good idea. Its use is definitely increasing over the years, both commercial and non-commercial, both wade and float fishing.”
Yet the proposed changes will have a negative effect on his business, according to Olwell.
“I think this is unfairly weighted toward locals,” Olwell said. “I think the nonresident anglers were somewhat left out of the process and that’s wrong, because they pay a lot into the economy and most of the revenue into licenses. And then they’ve also been hit with the extra burden for the AIS (Aquatic Invasive Species) program. Nonresidents are more than paying their way.”
The Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research estimated that outfitting and guiding was the second leading expenditure for nonresidents visiting Ravalli County. In 2015, nonresidents spent more than $7 million on outfitting and guiding alone, which does not take into account stops to fill up vehicles with gas, to buy ice for coolers, and other expenses like hotel stays and restaurant dinners.
“I think there’s far too much emphasis on limiting the fishermen, who I think are the solution, not the problem,” Olwell said. “I think far too little emphasis is put on the habitat of the West Fork; for example there was a garbage dump exposed by the high water this year and I don’t really hear anyone complaining about it.”
In response to the proposed changes, some citizens have organized a group in opposition. Mike Canning, a nonresident angler from California, has been leading the charge with the group, Anglers for Common Sense, which has more than 100 signers on a petition asking FWP to reconsider its proposed restrictions.
“I think that the proposed regulations are well-intended, but the concerns that a number of us have are the unintended consequences,” Canning said. “The identification of beats (or river sections) is a problem. Some of those beats, during high water, it would be impossible to stop your float.”
One of the main objections people make to putting restrictions on certain sections of river is that they say it will increase crowding on other sections.
“It’s exacerbating and relocating the problem,” Canning said.
In the petition, Anglers for Common Sense suggests four amendments to the current proposal and cautions against the negative impacts of regulation.
First, it recommends removing any regulations on the main stem of the Bitterroot River from Hannon Memorial to Wally Crawford. According to Anglers for Common Sense, no significant data suggest conflicts between wade anglers and float anglers in that section.
It also proposes eliminating closures on certain sections of river on certain days of the week, saying that would crowd the open sections even more.
Anglers for Common Sense suggests that FWP should address illegal outfitting on the West Fork, as it occurs already; and grant the number of launches to each outfitter based on their historical use.
Sean O'Brien, the owner of Osprey Outfitters in Hamilton, has been guiding for 14 years. O'Brien served on the citizen advisory council, and though he ended up voting for the regulations that could go into effect, he hopes they're refined further.
"If it means the committee meets again this winter, I would definitely get back in there and I think a lot of the people on that committee would, too," O'Brien said. "Should there be an unlimited amount of use up there? No. Should there be a little regulation up there? Yeah."
The proposed alternative that FWP decided to vote for was a compromise for him, O'Brien said.
"There's this big conflict against some wade fishermen saying they don’t want floaters on that section at all," O'Brien said. "We tried to appease them, give them one day a week, where it was closed to commercial outfitting. It's a compromise we came to. It was a compromise I didn’t agree with, and will that create more wade fishermen up there? I doubt it."
Three public hearings will take place in October, one in Missoula, one in Hamilton, and the last in Butte. The meeting in Hamilton will be hosted in the Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor’s office on Oct. 3 at 6 p.m.
After the public comments are collected, FWP will review them and submit a recommendation to the FWP Commission. If the rules are adopted, a public awareness campaign would begin in early spring.
“If people are concerned they should comment,” Oschell said. “I highly recommend people comment if this is something they care about.”
FWP will collect public comment until Oct. 13. Questions can be directed to Chrissy Oschell, by phone at 406-542-5562 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.