Big Hole River Recreation Rules

“I’m not a politician; I’m a biologist.” That’s Mike Bias’s reaction to a recent flap concerning recreation management rules on the Big Hole River. Bias is the Executive Director of the Big Hole River Foundation, an organization founded by the late George Grant. The goals of the foundation are, as stated on the Foundation’s website, “To conserve, enhance and protect the free-flowing character of the Big Hole River, its unique culture, fish and wildlife.”

Bias probably didn’t expect the publicity that resulted after he visited a board meeting of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited. This followed a Foundation board meeting, in which members discussed fundraising and perceived difficulties in getting donations from out-of-state people who feel that recreation management rules that restrict guided and non-resident floating on the river on a rotating basis were unfair.

The rules were adopted by the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission five years ago, following recommendations of a citizen’s advisory committee. Those rules are coming up for review this year, and the foundation board felt this would be a good time to do some preliminary work on whether those rules might be amended. In a series of bullet points for his presentation Bias said that, “The Big Hole River Foundation thinks the nonresident restriction clause is not biologically warranted to protect the fisheries…”

Josh Vincent, president of the George Grant Chapter of TU said board members present discussed the issue, commenting, “The board was unanimous that the rules should stay intact. We think that the rules have worked well.”

Nevertheless, word got around, and several past board members of the Big Hole River Foundation sent an opinion piece to local newspapers blasting the Foundation for raising the issue, suggesting that George Grant would be turning in his grave.

In a phone interview last week, Bias expressed dismay over the situation. “It wasn’t my intent to stir up a controversy—though I’m reminded of the saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We’re not in this to fight over a rule review.” He adds that the Foundation is doing some important work, such as initiating a fish-tagging study on the Big Hole, in cooperation with FWP, or a recent education project, educating area school children on aquatic biology and watershed issues. “We’re a small foundation. We can’t afford to get involved in controversy.” He also pointed out that the current recreation restrictions on float outfitting and non-resident float fishing are separate rules, and that the foundation was looking only at the non-resident float fishing issue, not float outfitting.

Bias added that, following the initial uproar, the foundation sent some 300 letters to their members to get a broader assessment of how they feel about the recreation management rules. He pointed out that the foundation membership is about half Montana residents (with a strong Butte-area representation) and half non-residents. He welcomes public feedback, “Our board meetings are always open to anyone.”

As mentioned above, the Big Hole and Beaverhead River recreation plans are up for review by the FWP commission, and, according to Charlie Sperry of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, there will be open house meetings in Butte on Tuesday, March 2, and in Dillon, on Tuesday, March 9.

Where do I stand? First, some disclosure. I was a member of the citizen advisory committee of five years ago that came up with recommendations to the FWP Commission. We did some solid work and I was pleased that the Commission adopted most recommendations. I am not a member of the Big Hole River Foundation, though we have given them some modest financial support by attending their fall fundraising dinners and getting some bargains in their silent auction.

In the West, whiskey is for drinkin’, water is for fightin’. Still, I hate to see the good guys fighting with other good guys.

I believe that current rules should stay in place. The rules work well in spreading out the pressure on the river. As for non-residents who feel discriminated against, I’d remind them they can go to any fishing access site, any day, put on waders — and go fish.