Madison River Deserves Thoughtful Management

Floaters stand on the banks of the Madison on a summer day. Photo by Brent Zundel

Floaters stand on the banks of the Madison on a summer day. Photo by Brent Zundel

By Brent Zundel
For the MSU Exponent
March 8, 2012

A few years ago, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) prioritized each river in Montana and named the Madison River as the single most important.

International fly fishermen and local guides alike revere the Madison for its unparalleled blue-ribbon fishing, while everyone from local families to MSU students spends time floating the river on lazy summer days. In spite of all this use, the river also boasts an exceptionally intact ecosystem.

Currently, a number of concerns about the river have surfaced, including littering, congestion both on the river and at the limited number of access points, trespassing on private property and conflict between users.

Rumors that floating could be completely eliminated have been circulated by various groups, including the Moose 95.1 radio station’s website. While concerns about the management of the river are legitimate, fears that floating will be banned in its entirety are overblown.

Realizing the importance of the river in towns from Ennis to Bozeman, FWP is working to develop a comprehensive management plan. They’ve already held four public meetings and are currently accepting comments online as well as applications for Citizen Advisory Committee members.

Based on community input and an environmental assessment, FWP will present a draft plan, which will then be opened for ample public comment.

As one of the premier rivers in a state admired for its pristine waterways, the Madison deserves a thoughtful management plan, carefully crafted by extensive public discourse. In creating this plan, FWP must balance many diverse interests — private fishermen, guides and outfitters and all types of recreationalists — while protecting the environmental integrity of the river system, from its source in Yellowstone Park to its confluence at Three Forks.

While considering these proposals, it’s important not to create a problem where none exists. For example, guides taking fishermen out on the river already follow many regulations, but they ought not be further punished for operating on a popular river.

However, a 2008 FWP survey of roughly 750 randomly selected fishing license holders in FWP Administrative Region 3 produced revealing results. When asked about the pressure on the river (in terms of number of people fishing, floating, bank fishing, etc.) during spring, fall and winter, approval rates consistently ranged from percentages in the high 70s to the low 80s.

During the summer, however, the percentage of respondents who considered the number of floaters — people using the river for recreational purposes other than fishing — “acceptable” plummeted to 28 percent for the section of the river between Ennis Dam and Three Forks. It’s no coincidence that this area is the closest to Bozeman and easily receives the highest use.

How do the communities along the Madison deal with this pressure? If we are to avoid permits, similar to the lottery system under which the Smith River near White Sulfur Springs is managed, citizens must take it upon themselves to care for the Madison.

Spreading out pressure along the river would go a long way toward reducing conflicts between users. Floaters ought to consider slightly different put-ins and take-outs, and late arrivals might consider going home and getting up early the next day — instead of parking on the street or adding to an already full river.

Designated drivers and extra efforts to pick up litter will prove crucial to the Madison’s future. If you want a say in how one of the most important rivers in Montana is managed, FWP is accepting applications for the advisory committee until March 16.


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