Is the Madison River Being Overused?

The Contentious debate over limiting use of Montana's most popular river

Is the Madison River Being Overused?
A citizen committee tasked with regulating the Madison River proposed banning boats between Quake Lake and Lyons Bridge. The area (shown here) currently allows boats to pass through, but fishing from boats is not permitted. The no-boats proposal and the idea of limiting commercial use of the river proved so controversial that the citizen committee disbanded, throwing the hot potato back into the hands of Montana FWP. (John Juracek photo)

Comparing rivers to baseball stadiums is the most overused cliché in southwestern Montana. Name one of the big rivers, and someone is bound to tell you that it’s like Wrigley, or Fenway, or the old Yankee Stadium. It fits—these rivers are indeed special, and people dream of fishing them—but it’s a little tired.

The cliché has come up recently in conversations about the Madison, the child of Yellowstone National Park’s Gibbon and Firehole rivers. The cliché isn’t resurfacing because the river has suddenly become more special, but because a lot of people are worried about proposals for regulating it.

In 2018, Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) put forward a recreation plan for the river that would have capped the number of outfitters, set up non-commercial days for certain sections, and barred boats from the two wade-only sections, among other things. It came after years of growth in angler numbers, which peaked at 207,000 in 2017, the year of FWP’s most recent survey. The Madison was the first Montana waterbody to top 200,000 angler days.

FWP worries overuse could eventually harm the fishery, though it hasn’t so far. The agency also worries about social conflicts between anglers, particularly between those who use boats and those who wade, a dispute as old as fishing itself. Agency staffers hoped their plan would ease crowding. But guides and outfitters vehemently opposed it at a meeting of the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission. A few outfitters said it was indeed time to cap river use, but they said FWP’s proposal was the wrong way to do it. The commission tanked it and instead tasked a citizen committee with drafting a plan all sides could agree to.

That proved a tall order. The 10-person group started meeting in January 2019, and talks quickly grew contentious. An outsized flashpoint was the idea of banning boats from Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge, a wade-only section where many anglers use boats to access hard-to-reach wading spots. FWP put the proposal in its original plan, and committee member Lauren Wittorp, then the executive director of the Madison River Foundation, backed it, arguing that wade anglers deserved a piece of the river unmolested by boats. Observers of the process seized on the issue, accusing the foundation of supporting the privatization of public water and favoring rich landowners. Wittorp argued the water was still accessible, just tough wading.

That fight, and a few public statements that grated guides and outfitters, earned Wittorp a lot of criticism. The town of Ennis, where the foundation is based, turned on her. There were rumors of physical threats. Some members of the foundation’s board of directors didn’t support her positions and resigned amid the controversy. A number of people talked big about no longer donating to the foundation or canceling their membership, though the foundation insists it is gaining members and growing. But the pressure never let up. In April, Wittorp resigned from both her job and the rules committee. She wrote in a letter to the foundation’s members that she hoped “civil discourse can be found” in the effort to write regulations for the Madison.

The committee met once without her. Wide gulfs of disagreement still existed, and few saw a way for the remaining nine to work things out. In the end, it disbanded without producing any regulatory proposal.

The warfare showed how challenging it is to try to limit use on a river, especially when a river like the Madison and a town like Ennis are at the center of it. Tensions run high, people get angry. It also distracted from the real reason the process had started—the idea of preserving an iconic experience on an increasingly crowded river.

The Perils of Fame

Locals talk about the Madison River in two parts, the lower and the upper. The lower river is more like a classic tailwater, beginning at Ennis Lake and flowing through a gorgeous canyon and then along a highway on its way to Three Forks. The lower river has a robust tube hatch every year—college kids and booze—and it can get dangerously hot for trout.

The upper Madison is the famous part. Sometimes called the 50-mile riffle, it comes from Hebgen Dam and serves as the centerpiece of the wide and handsome Madison Valley, the Gravelly Range rising to the West and the Madison Range rising to the east. That’s where the Salmonflies pop, and that’s where the crowding problem is. FWP’s count of 207,000 angler days in 2017 came there— between Hebgen and Ennis lakes.

In 2017, the number of angler days on the Madison River between Hebgen and Ennis lakes topped 207,000. More than 200 outfitters are licensed to use the river, and from 2008 to 2017 the number of commercial trips increased by roughly 70 percent. (John Juracek photo)

Montana has tried to deal with crowding there before with float closures and a permit system for outfitters, but nothing has solved it. The numbers kept climbing. Just 10 years ago, the number of angler days hovered around 110,000. The 2017 count of angler days is 30 percent higher than the 2015 count, and an even bigger leap over 2013.

Growth in angler numbers is somewhat symptomatic of what’s happening around the region. Southwest Montana as a whole is growing. Bozeman, where I live, grows condos the way a cow pasture grows weeds. Gallatin County’s population has grown by 25 percent since 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and it’s now estimated at about 112,000 people. Madison County, where Ennis is, grew by 4.5 percent from 2017 to 2018.

Yet FWP data shows the crowds mostly consist of outsiders. During a 2017 creel survey, almost 70 percent of people interviewed were from out of state. About 29 percent were from Montana, and 5.4 percent were from Madison County— where Ennis is—while 18 percent were from Gallatin County—where Bozeman is.

Guided angling has grown significantly, too. From 2008 to 2017, the number of commercial trips increased by roughly 70 percent, according to FWP. There are more than 200 outfitters licensed to use the river. One individual outfitter reported running more than 1,000 trips in 2017, a milestone reflecting the overall growth.

Outfitters are quick to point out that guided anglers remain a fraction of the overall use, which is true. A total of 11,224 guided trips were reported to FWP in 2017. Assuming a guided trip counts for two angler days (two anglers in the boat), commercial use comes out to roughly 11 percent of overall use. But at peak times of year—like July, for example—they account for more than half of the boats on the river, according to remote camera data collected by FWP.

Amid all this growth, the fishery itself isn’t showing signs of serious decline. People are still catching plenty of fish. Rainbow trout numbers have recovered from the gut punch of whirling disease. Crowding is a social problem, not a biological one. That distinction makes dealing with it tough. A lack of biological urgency leaves room for some to doubt whether there’s really a problem.

The 2017 creel survey and a 2016 mail-in survey conducted by FWP show that many do see a problem, however. Angler satisfaction wasn’t rock bottom, but there were plenty of people with complaints—too many cars in the parking lots, too many boats, too many people. Many respondents told FWP they fish the river less often now. The chief reason: They want to fish around fewer people.

Angler displacement doesn’t decrease the overall use of the river because the stream remains a massive tourism draw. When one longtime angler leaves, there’s a newcomer ready to take their place. The river could see growth for many years to come. In the analysis of the survey results, FWP biologists wrote that their concern is when too much actually becomes too much.

“The economy of Montana is surely benefiting from the resilience of the upper Madison River; the question is then—at what point will angler pressure impact the health of trout and whitefish populations in the upper Madison River,” the document says.

How to Limit Use

FWP’s failed plan centered mostly on commercial use. Outfitters said it was unworkable and raised concerns that it could actually increase crowding because of a resting schedule that would have forced guides to completely avoid one river stretch each day. They also chafed against a rule that would have restricted the number of trips they could run each day based on the season.

Fishing on the Madison River has remained consistently good, and crowding on the river seems to be only a social problem, not a biological one. (John Juracek photo)

Talk of getting boats out of the river’s two wade-only sections was secondary, but that quickly became the prickliest issue in front of the rulemaking committee. At each meeting, public commenters brought it up. As that issue caught fire, talk of limiting commercial use became somewhat ancillary. Some observers hypothesized that stoking the row v. wade argument was outfitters’ tactic to avoid regulation for another year.

Any potential constraint on commercial use makes people nervous. Guided fishing fuels the economy along the upper Madison. Montana has tried to wrangle the industry before, including on the Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers, where a plan has been in place since 2000. It restricted the number of outfitters who could run trips on the river and allocated them a set number of days based on their past use of the river.

Limiting the number of days created economic value for those client days, and with it a peculiar economy. Outfitters are prohibited from selling part of their days to another outfitter—any sale of days has to be all the days the outfitter owns. As a result, classified ads occasionally pop up in the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana newsletter for a block of days on either river. A recent one offered 52 Beaverhead days for $60,000.

Critics of this economy say it’s a massive barrier to entry for aspiring outfitters. Many have said they don’t want to see such an economy pop up on the Madison. Whether it’s possible to limit use without creating economic value for those days is a different question entirely, though. Some don’t think it’s possible, and others don’t see a problem with making a permit worth some coin. Capitalism is what it is.

Limiting only commercial use still doesn’t tackle the entire problem, and some would like to see limits on all users. The rules committee talked through ideas like capping the overall number of angler days and allocating some to residents and some to nonresidents, but, as of this writing, nothing like that has been formally proposed.

After disbanding, the members of the rules committee were required to send letters to the state fish and wildlife commission outlining their thoughts. The commission gets to decide what’s next, and it’s unlikely anything new will be in place in 2020—the original goal for a new recreation plan.

Meanwhile, anglers will keep coming, clogging up parking lots and boat ramps. Of the anglers interviewed for the 2017 creel survey, 25 percent were first-time Madison River anglers, and there are surely more first-timers with pilgrimages planned for this year. There’s no reason to think that will stop.

This math defies the old baseball cliché. There were only so many seats in the old Yankee Stadium.

*Michael Wright is a staff writer at the Bozeman Chronicle.

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