The Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers near Missoula would be closed to high-speed watercraft under a proposal by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Increasing conflicts between homeowners and non-motorized boaters on one side and speedboaters on the other prompted the plan, according to FWP fisheries manager Pat Saffel.
The issue reached a boiling point last summer, when the agency got so many objections to powerboat use on the Clark Fork, it dropped plans for a new concrete boat ramp at the Harper's Bridge fishing access site west of Missoula.
"It was brought to us largely as a social concern," Saffel said. "The wildlife and natural resource impacts are plausible, but likely minimal. On other hand, we got lots of input from the public that socially and safety-wise, it's an issue."
Greg Munther was one of those who raised both the social and safety questions. A 35-year homeowner along the Bitterroot near Maclay Bridge, he said the jet-powered boats and personal watercraft were both a nuisance and a threat.
"When we first moved here, there were no motors," said Munther, a retired Forest Service district ranger. "Lately, we've seen the conflicts with canoeists, rafters and tubers and the jet boats. We've observed close encounters with boats and rafts. And another thing I've observed - all the birds, great blue herons, osprey, eagles, geese - have to leave when the boats go by. They're all displaced."
Under existing rules, FWP allows high-powered boats on the Clark Fork between the Blackfoot and Bitterroot river confluences any time except between July 1 and Sept. 30, when it becomes float-only. There are no powerboat restrictions on the Clark Fork below the Bitterroot confluence until the Alberton Gorge recreation area.
The Bitterroot above the Florence Bridge limits powerboats to 15-horsepower motors or less, and only between Oct. 1 and Jan. 31. The rest of the year only floaters are allowed. Below Florence Bridge, there are no power restrictions between May 1 and June 30, a 15-horsepower limit between Oct. 1 and Jan. 31, and floating only the rest of the year.
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The new rules would close the Clark Fork to all motors between the Blackfoot and Bitterroot confluences, allow 20-horsepower motors or less between the Bitterroot confluence and Ninemile Creek, and unlimited motor use between Ninemile and the St. John's fishing access site.
The Bitterroot would stay essentially the same, except that the small motor limit would increase to 20-horsepower and the Florence Bridge/Buckhouse Bridge segment high-power period would shorten to May 1 to June 15. High-speed boats would be prohibited below Buckhouse Bridge to the Clark Fork.
Saffel said the Florence/Buckhouse and Ninemile/St. John's reaches were left available to high-powered use to balance the new limits elsewhere. He added those two areas had less floating and homeowner concerns.
Michael Gibson of Trout Unlimited said his group supported the small-motor exceptions for people who hunted birds in the fall or used trolling motors to get upstream. But floaters fear the possibility of collisions between jetboats and low-profile watercraft, as well as the disruption to quiet activities like fishing or birdwatching.
"Motor use has definitely increased, especially in July and August," Gibson said. "And when a use gets established, it's hard to ratchet it back."
For details on the proposal, and to comment online, go to FWP's website, fwp.mt.gov, and follow the link on the home page to "Proposed Region 2 Boating Regulations." A copy of the proposal and associated environmental assessment are also available at the FWP Missoula office, by emailing email@example.com, or calling (406) 542-5500.
Written comments can be sent by mail to: Sharon Rose, Attention: Boating Regulation Changes, 3201 Spurgin Road, Missoula, MT 59804 or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. FWP will accept public comment through June 27.
The FWP Commission will review the public comments and make a final decision on the proposal at its Aug. 11 meeting.