Panel: Reserve parts of upper Bitterroot River for locals

February 24, 2017 GMT

HAMILTON — Local fishermen who have given up on fishing the upper reaches of the Bitterroot River, including the popular West Fork, because of crowding are going to like this news.

Following four long days of deliberations, a diverse volunteer committee has agreed on an alternative that will set aside portions of the river to noncommercial use on specific days.

“There was consensus on the alternative,” said Pat Saffel, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional fisheries manager. “I actually didn’t expect that.”

The 16-member Bitterroot River Recreation Advisory Committee will meet one more time to finalize their preferred alternative before passing it off to state officials. That meeting is tentatively set for March 6 at 6 p.m. at the Bitterroot Forest Supervisor’s office in Hamilton.

The proposed preferred alternative uses a plan similar to what’s already in place on the Big Hole River.

It divides the West Fork and upper Bitterroot River into four sections.

The section just below Painted Rocks Dam would be set aside for noncommercial wade fishermen one day a week. It runs from the dam to an unnamed fishing access site directly across from the Bitterroot Forest’s West Fork Ranger Station that’s commonly called the Canoe fishing access site.

Floating would not be allowed on that section on that designated day, to provide more opportunity to anglers who enjoy getting their feet wet while casting a fly.

The next section would start at the Canoe site and run downstream to Hannon. The other two sections would run between fishing access sites at Hannon to Darby and then Darby to Wally Crawford.

Each one of those sections of river would be closed one day a week on consecutive days to commercial outfitters. The days when the closures would occur have not yet been determined.

Those closures would mean that local anglers would not have to compete with outfitters three days a week on different sections of the river.

Saffel said the section between Canoe and Hannon is considered a day-long float. The lower two sections take about a half-day to float.

The proposed alternative would also limit outfitters to two launches a day at the access sites open to commercial fishing.

“At this point, we’re not certain on how that actually would be administered,” Saffel said.

The committee is also proposing that all outfitters that use any portion of the Bitterroot River would be required to obtain a special recreation permit.

“They want that to apply to the whole Bitterroot River,” Saffel said. “It would provide an accounting of outfitters using the river, including how many days they’re on the river.”

The new permit would not limit commercial use beyond what’s already being proposed on the upper reaches of the river.

Saffel said the committee recognized there would be some displacement of angling pressure by the proposed regulations on the upper reaches.

“They were wary of pushing that use around on the river,” Saffel said. “The permits would be a tool in helping understanding that new dynamic.”

Those special recreation permits for outfitters are already required on other state rivers, including the Blackfoot and Madison.

Safell said there was some interest from the committee in capping the number of outfitters allowed to float on the Bitterroot River.

“To be able to address that question, we have to know how many outfitters are out there now,” he said.

Beyond this preferred alternative, Saffel said the committee has created five other alternatives that the public will have a chance to consider when the draft environmental analysis is released later this spring or early summer.

There would not be any changes to the current management this summer.

“By the time we get through the entire process, it will be in the middle or end of the fishing season. It’s going to be next year,” Saffel said.

The public will get its chance to weigh in during a public comment period and at least one public hearing. After that, the proposal will go before the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Safell said it’s difficult to guess just how long the entire process will take.

“A lot of that depends on how much comment we receive and how much consideration there is on the different alternatives,” he said.

Safell said there has been some concern from the public that the process to develop the alternatives was rushed.

“We had four intensive, long days working this with a 16-member committee,” he said. “Each one of them spent 30-plus hours working on it. I think there has been a lot of thought put into this proposal and there will be a lot more.”

“We are not hurrying this along,” Saffel said. “I think we have a really good start. Now, we’ll see what people think.”