A proposal to limit motorized watercraft use on nearly 50 western Montana river and stream segments is the subject of public hearings starting next week.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers’ Quiet Waters initiative offers a mix of certain seasonal and horsepower restrictions as well as the closure of some small tributaries for motorized use. The group cites advancements and future advancements of motorized technology as a primary reason for bringing the initiative.
Various regulation changes are sought on the Yellowstone, Flathead, Marias, Stillwater, Sun, Teton Bitterroot, Missouri, Swan and Whitefish rivers, with additional changes for multiple tributaries. Examples of proposed regulations include limiting the Missouri River near Craig to 10-horsepower or less motors from June 1 through Sept. 15, and closing all tributaries of the Bitterroot River to motorized watercraft.
A full description of impacted waterways is available at http://fwp.mt.gov/news/publicNotices/rules/pn_0218.html.
“We recognize that jet boats and motorboats have a place in Montana, but that’s not in every stream all the time,” said John Sullivan, BHA Montana chair. “Quiet Waters for us is an honest conversation about a give and take.”
The petition process allows the public to bring proposed regulations directly to the Fish and Wildlife Commission. In May, the commission bucked opposition from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and voted unanimously to move Quiet Waters forward, putting the proposal into state rulemaking which includes public comment. Commissioners agreed with supporters that a “proactive” approach to regulations was a discussion worth having.
FWP is taking public comment and holding six public meetings in January.
“We think the (petition) process itself is great,” Sullivan said. “It allows citizens to propose changes to the ways we manage wildlands and wildlife resources … and it’s kind of a democratic process.”
Support for Quiet Waters has been mixed.
Representatives from the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana and American Rivers threw support behind moving the proposal forward, along with several other BHA members and river users at the May commission meeting.
The Flathead Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited voiced support in a letter to the commission for seasonal restrictions on the Flathead River.
“As all forms of water based recreation are increasing in this area, the potential for future conflicts will only grow. New technologies will help fuel the conflicts as motorized use will expand into new areas formerly not accessible,” the letter says.
Although Montana Trout Unlimited did not develop Quiet Waters, the group is generally supportive of the initiative, said Executive Director Bruce Farling. “Meaningful” solutions often require reducing the use by some groups, he said, adding that the proposals are not “radical.”
“Our view is simply that we shouldn't wait until there is a problem, after conflicts between motorized and nonmotorized users become inflamed and the issues become clearer regarding safety, resource damage or harm to private landowners,” Farling said. “Trying to fix it after the fact when uses have been established and people are dug in is not necessarily the best way to establish policy.”
The initiative is also timely in light of invasive species detections in Montana with potential to spread via watercraft, he said. The majority of water-based recreation is nonmotorized but many waterways would remain open without restrictions.
FWP’s opposition stems from a lack of conflicts and the belief that current laws and regulations are sufficient. The agency called the recommendations “drastic” in agenda materials and suggested that existing laws against negligent and reckless boating address public safety.
Flathead-area business owners and boaters turned out in force to oppose the measure at the commission's December meeting.
"To me this is one user group trying to dictate how we can recreate," said Mike Howe, a charter captain on Flathead Lake. "I don't feel this is based on science ... or any conflicts. This group just doesn't like noise."
He went on to say the initiative will pit user groups against each other.
Pete Jellar, owner of Pete's Tackle Shop in Kalispell, asked the commission to extend the comment period another 60 to 90 days.
"This would affect my business," he said. "I will probably have to shut my doors."
Walleyes Unlimited of Montana also opposes Quiet Waters.
“There have been no complaints to the department regarding power watercraft in the areas proposed to be closed,” said Executive Director Bob Gilbert. “What we have is a solution in search of a problem.”
The initiative gives preferential treatment to nonmotorized use and could affect the quality of fishing and boating for members whov travel throughout western Montana, he said. The measure also sets a precedent for requesting additional restrictions in the central and eastern part of the state.
Many wilderness areas are already designated for quiet recreation, Gilbert said.
Sullivan believes that opposition has been largely regional and subject to misinformation. The biggest misconception, he says, is that Quiet Waters outlaws boats across the state.
“If I could take back the title ‘Quiet Waters’ I probably would because it’s led to misunderstanding,” he said. “We don’t want to see jet boats eliminated. We don’t want to see anything too heavy-handed.”
BHA’s board includes some motorboat owners with an overarching belief that the initiative protects current uses as it seeks balance in the face of technology and a growing population, he said.
“I really hope we’ll have the opportunity to set the record straight,” Sullivan said of the upcoming hearings.
The Billings Gazette's Brett French contributed to this story.