Following months of public comment, hours of testimony Friday, accusations of conflicts of interest and rebuttals, and deciding against pushing the decision, the Montana Fish, and Wildlife Commission voted down a controversial petition to limit motorized watercraft on multiple rivers and tributaries.
A year ago, the state chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers brought the Quiet Waters Initiative to the commission. The organization contended that new water use regulations would prevent conflicts between recreationists, improve safety and maintain traditional use. Despite Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ recommendation that the initiative be denied, the commission agreed a “proactive” approach was a discussion worth having, and put the petition into rule-making to seek public input.
The initiative proposes various seasonal and horsepower restrictions as well as the closure of some small tributaries for motorized use. Regulation changes were sought on the Yellowstone, Flathead, Marias, Stillwater, Sun, Teton, Bitterroot, Missouri, Swan and Whitefish rivers, with additional changes for multiple tributaries.
Public comment both written and through hearings revealed majority opposition to Quiet Waters. FWP recorded nearly 1,200 comments opposing all or part of the petition and about 450 in support.
Many opponents argued that the petition set a precedent of excluding motorized users to the benefit of non-motorized recreationists. Others went a step further, saying the petition overly favored trout outfitters using drift boats.
At Friday’s hearing the commission welcomed three new members: attorney and former commission chairman Shane Colton from Billings, retired Forest Service employee Tim Aldrich of Missoula and school teacher Logan Brower of Scobey. Both Colton and Aldrich only received their appointments a little over a week ago.
Colton offered an initial motion to extend public comment to allow the new commission time to better understand the complexities of Quiet Waters, which included a revamped proposal from Chairman Dan Vermillion of Livingston.
The commission then took more than four hours of testimony with the message and breakdown of support and opposition largely similar to the year-long debate.
“We see this as taking away the rights of the citizens of Montana,” said Bob Gilbert, executive director of Walleyes Unlimited of Montana, adding that rules in area already in place to deal with conflicts.
“Everyone enjoys Montana in different ways, and to limit that is wrong,” Doug Hunt testified from Kalispell.
Several commenters referred to Backcountry Hunters and Anglers as a “special interest group,” while others suggested certain members of the commission had conflicts of interest and should abstain from voting. Vermillion is a fishing outfitter and Aldrich a member of BHA.
Others testified that new regulations will hurt businesses and that the petitioners had failed to prove through data that conflicts and safety concerns were valid. Many opponents implored the commission to render a decision rather than extend comment again.
Two attorneys also testified that the petition and amendments could invite litigation, as recreation planning would require FWP to first complete environmental analysis.
Quiet waters drew its share of support as well.
Jeff Lukas with BHA responded to the special interest group label, noting that multiple groups were represented at the hearing. The initiative was not about jet boats versus drift boats, he said.
“I believe all of those user groups have a place on this river,” he said, adding that opponents were conflating access with opportunity. Quiet Waters does not prohibit access, he said, but rather “puts reasonable restrictions in place.”
Other supporters testified to the importance of quiet recreation, while some warned about the dangers of doing nothing.
In discussing the motion to extend comment, Vermillion first addressed the conflict of interest accusations. While he does outfit the Yellowstone, he sees the conflicts and risks to public safety, he said. He did not believe his vote fell within conflict of interest rules and had not received any indication from FWP that he was in conflict, saying he would recuse if the department told him he should.
“It’s unfortunate to me and really sad that this discussion has created so much animosity between groups,” he said. Montanans and the commission must face the fact that the state and waters will only become increasingly crowded, he added.
Commissioner Richard Stuker of Chinook said he recognized the overwhelming opposition, but felt some aspects of the petition had merit, particularly on extremely small streams. A rule making process through the department was the way to proceed in his mind.
Aldrich mentioned his BHA membership and said he believed he would benefit from more time but noting that he did not think the additional input would be much different.
Colton came to Vermillion’s defense, saying that the previous makeup of the commission could have passed the initiative, but Vermillion had not pushed it. Colton said he was concerned by his perception that the department “often defers to avoiding conflict” when it comes to setting regulations.
Brower agreed that additional time and public comment would likely bring much of the same.
The commission voted down the motion to extend comment on a 3-2 vote.
That left the commission with a decision on the petition. After additional public comment and commissioner statements that the discussion would move forward through the typical rulemaking process, they unanimously voted to deny the petition.