A winter of discontent in Ennis
If your summer plans include a tailwater weekend along Montana’s Madison River, you won’t be alone. In early April 2018, after years of surveys, public meetings, and citizen advisory committees, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) released its draft Recreational Management Plan for the Madison, which included some alarming data. From 2013 to 2017, the number of angler days on the upper Madison doubled, from 88,000 to 179,000. Data also showed that commercial outfitter use had increased 72 percent from 2008 to 2017.
Several of FWP’s preferred management strategies were aimed at limiting that commercial use, including capping the number of outfitter permits and closing the lowest section of river to commercial guiding. But two weeks after the plan was released, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission rejected those recommendations. And since no state agency wants to be responsible for deciding such a highly divisive issue (see: river access in Colorado), the solution was… Form a public committee!
The 10-member “Negotiated Rulemaking Committee” (NRC) was selected by the Commission from a cross-section of river users, some that were commercial, some not. The NRC held eight public meetings over the winter, but the Ennis gatherings held March 6 and 7 drew the most vocal and contentious crowd, with many speaking out against the proposed restrictions. “Bozeman is huge and has other resources, and West Yellowstone has the Park and snowmobiling,” said Ennis resident Matt Smith. “But Ennis is the Madison River; the river is our economy.”
One of the biggest controversies erupted over the 12.6-mile wading section from Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge. Fishing from a boat or float tube isn’t allowed there, but both are used to access hard-to-reach spots. FWP was proposing this stretch be changed to walk/wade only, with boats or tubes no longer allowed.
This idea wasn’t popular in Ennis, but the debate frequently felt like it was less about the management suggestions than about who was supporting them. The 10 members of the NRC included Lauren Wittorp, then executive director of the nonprofit Madison River Foundation (MRF). Both Wittorp and the MRF faced heavy criticism—some justified, some not—for supporting the FWP’s plan, eventually leading to Wittorp’s resignation from both the Foundation and the rulemaking committee.
It’s doubtful Ennis anglers were mad at no longer being able to haul their float tubes 30 miles up to Lyon’s Bridge and kick across to their honey holes. But Wittorp was suspected of serving as a mouthpiece for riverside property owners/MRF funders, especially around the Big Bend area below Reynolds Pass. And that was probably unfair to her, as she was mostly just defending FWP’s own suggestions, which were “based on years of data collection, surveys, public meetings, working groups, field observation, commercial use reports and Madison Citizen Advisory Committee recommendations”, according to the draft management plan.
Nevertheless, give Ennis props for the fight, especially those few who dug deep, like guide Randy Brown, and Chi Wulff’s Mark McGlothlin. On May 2, the NRC disbanded without a solution, placing the matter back in the lap of the Commission. “Regulating commercial outfitting is very complicated,” says new commissioner Pat Byorth, who replaced Dan Vermillion in April. “So we don’t want to rush into it.” They meet next on Aug. 15.