Madison River Rules Change

Kiri posing on a Madison River rock.

2021 ended on a lame note when the Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission ignored years of work and study on issues of overcrowding on the upper Madison River and voted to keep rules on the Madison River the same as they have been.

 For a refresher, in 2020, members of the Commission, as then constituted, voted to institute a system of rest and rotation on several defined stretches of the river in which commercial traffic would be restricted on specified days. This system would have gone into effect on January 1, 2022.

 This system, similar to rules that have been in effect for over 20 years on the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers, came after long periods of discussion and public hearings. Steve Luebeck, Butte, presented proposals at that time, on behalf of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Skyline Sportsmen and Anaconda Sportsmen, that were eventually adopted by the Commission.

On December 23, the Fish & Wildlife Commission met online (the meeting was recorded and available on YouTube) and after brief discussion adopted rules that revert to previous policies that don’t provide for rest/rotation rules, though the commissioners were careful to point out that walk and wade sections downstream from Raynolds Bridge and Ennis Bridge would be preserved.

 In previous action, the Commission delayed implementation of a cap on outfitter use to 2020 levels to the year 2023.

In a post to the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Facebook page, Steve Luebeck expressed frustration with the Commission’s decision, first because while commissioners made reference to an extended period for public comment, there was no discussion about what the public said in their comments. Luebeck noted, “This is not an oversight, the results were the opposite of what they wanted, with 93% asking them to not repeal, so they just didn’t talk about the public comment results. Yet, they went forward and repealed the rule anyway.”

 Luebeck also underlined comments in the YouTube recording of the meeting (at the 40:27 mark) by commissioners K.C. Walsh and Pat Tabor to the effect that there should be overall limits to use on the Madison River, not just on outfitters, insinuating that private users are abusers of the resource. Luebeck says, “This is what they want to do, limit the public on the river and take off all limits on outfitters.”

 In a phone interview, Luebeck expressed his opinion that these actions are yet another step in the current state administration’s moves toward privatizing fish and wildlife. In his Facebook post, he urges people to look at the YouTube record of the meeting so we “can see your Commission at work…and hold these people accountable.”  Here is a link to the YouTube video in question:

 I will note that Steve Luebeck and I are longtime friends and I served with Steve on the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited board of directors some years ago. I have the utmost respect for Steve and his dedication to public access to Montana public lands and waters, as well as his considerable skills as a hunter and angler.

 Steve also has a good feel for politics and if he expresses fear of the possibility that sometime in the future everybody will need a permit to fish the Madison, I wouldn’t discount it. He sees a scenario of a cap of angler days. Outfitters, however, would have first crack at that pot of days and members of the general public will have to apply far in advance for what’s left of days on the river. “It could be like getting a campsite on Georgetown Lake on the 4th of July. If you wait until July 3 to make reservations, you’re going to be disappointed.”

A footnote to the Commission action is that the only commissioner to vote against killing the rest/rotation plan was Pat Byorth, a former FWP employee and the only remaining commissioner appointed by former governor Steve Bullock.

As is often pointed out, elections have consequences. Alas, some of us predicted probable consequences of the last general election, though I take no satisfaction in seeing those fears realized.

 Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at

2 thoughts on “Madison River Rules Change

  1. I’ve had actual nightmares off and on for years presenting a future where public access to rivers and streams that somehow survive climate change and pollution becomes nigh on impossible unless you know a guy. That would be a sad day, and I feel the streams and their contents would not necessarily be any better for the privatization.

    In some of those nightmares, the extinct trout, the beautiful iridescent trout, have been supplanted by little AI robotic versions of their biological inspirations. Dark? Absolutely. But, those nightmares seem so real sometimes.

    • Thanks for your comments, Kenny. We in Montana take pride in having the best stream access laws in the country. Many of us fear that the current Republican state government will throw it all away. Sad, but all too realistic.

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