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floaters on the Smith River

A new rule that would require floaters on the Smith River to carry bear-proof coolers or carry portable electric fences will be considered by the parks board at its meeting in Helena on Wednesday.

Despite concerns about liability or human injury, floaters on Montana’s popular Smith River will not be required to purchase bear-proof coolers or electric fences this season, as the Montana State Parks staff had recommended.

The Montana State Parks and Recreation Board instead voted Wednesday to require the park staff to install storage boxes on private land to keep food out of a bear’s reach, to demand that coolers and food boxes be strapped close, to compel floaters to carry five-gallon buckets for food waste such as bacon grease and to promote greater floater awareness of bear problems along the 60-mile-long river corridor through education.

The staff recommendation to put the onus on bear-proofing campgrounds on floaters was unanimously rejected by the board.

“We really don’t know what the problem is here,” said Mary Sexton, board member. “If the campground is a mess, there’s still going to be a problem there.”

The more extensive camp precautions come in the wake of eight black bears being removed from the river corridor in the past two float seasons for raiding coolers and threatening public safety.

“We are very concerned that there’s the potential for a bad incident based on bear activity,” said Roger Semler, assistant parks administrator.

The parks staff believed that a private business would step forward to rent portable electric fences or bear-proof coolers, just like those businesses that provide an automobile shuttle service for floaters. But board members questioned that assertion.

Bear-proof coolers start at about $200 each, with most floaters carrying several coolers. Portable electric fences start at around $280 each.

Installing large food storage boxes at each boat camp was seen as cost prohibitive by the agency as well as difficult to install and maintain. In addition, the Lewis and Clark National Forest voiced opposition to the installation of any fixed devices. Twenty-eight boat camps are located on forest land.

Although the board debated taking more time to iron out its recommended alternatives, park staff noted that applications for float trips go out from Jan. 5 to Feb. 19. Semler said it would be important to notify floaters as soon as possible as well as allow time for the parks staff to install any devices.

The float season typically starts in April. Notification to successful applicants goes out in mid-March.

Chris Strainer, a Helena fishing outfitter, said, “One of the nice parts about the Smith River is that it’s not a very expensive wilderness-type trip.”

He suggested education and that floaters sign a liability waiver.

Red Lodge resident Rand Herzberg, who has floated the Smith River 29 times, supported the park staff’s recommendations saying he has had three “dangerous and disturbing experiences on the river in the last three years,” including when he killed one bear.

Herzberg said portable electric fences were affordable and reasonable.

Some members of the board said they wouldn’t be opposed to increasing fees to help cover any additional costs to the agency, but no fee hike was recommended.

The Smith River is the only river in Montana where a permit is required to float. Permits are issued through a lottery system that costs $10 per entry, which is not refundable. On top of that, each floater pays from $15 to $60 per person. Commercial outfitters pay a higher fee. Groups are limited to 15 people.

Last year, 6,662 people submitted applications, a new record that surpassed 2012’s 6,156 applications. For 2013, 1,062 permits were awarded.

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