Strong opposition from walleye anglers derailed a proposed management plan for reservoirs near Helena Wednesday, with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks agreeing to gather more public input before bringing the plan forward again.
The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission voted down FWP’s draft management plan for Canyon Ferry, Hauser and Holter reservoirs along with the Missouri River upstream from Canyon Ferry and below Hauser Dam. The decision followed criticism from commissioners of an apparent lack of public participation in several scoping meetings and an outcry from walleye anglers who testified at Wednesday’s meeting in Helena.
FWP fisheries management bureau chief Eric Roberts detailed proposed changes to the management plan, which was last updated in 2009 and typically revisited about once every 10 years. Officials did not believe a full revision was needed from the current plan, and had convened a seven-member committee to offer recommendations during the summer. The agency also held five public meetings but most were poorly attended.
FWP proposed five changes to the current plan, which drives management but does not develop individual regulations. The agency proposed reducing the yellow perch goal for netting surveys on Canyon Ferry, incorporating management for northern pike on Canyon Ferry, standardizing size criteria for walleye on Canyon Ferry and Holter, re-evaluating strategies for budget limitations on stocking rainbow trout, and allowing a fishing tournament on Holter.
“We believe this draft plan uses criteria and sound fisheries management,” Roberts said, that will allow for adaptive management to maintain a multi-species fishery with high angler satisfaction.
If the commission adopted the draft plan it would have gone out to the public for comment and a future commission vote.
Fisheries management on the reservoirs has long-been a contentious issue. While walleye were stocked in Holter and Hauser, an apparent illegal introduction in Canyon Ferry started to gain notoriety in the 1990s. FWP attempted to aggressively remove walleye as well as began stocking larger trout to reduce predation on trout. At the same time anglers began catching numbers of trophy-sized walleye and the reputation made it a walleye fishing destination.
Over the decades the number of smaller walleye has exploded in Canyon Ferry and anglers such as Walleyes Unlimited have called for a return to slot-limits, meaning reducing harvest on medium sized walleye in an effort to grow larger walleye and provide more fish of prime eating size. Last year, management triggers led FWP to allow only one walleye over 20 inches in an effort to remove more small fish.
Biologists believe a pulse of walleye spawning is the primary cause of high numbers of small fish. They are concerned that slot limits protecting fish in the 16-inch to 20-inch range will be counterproductive, because those fish are the primary spawners and will continue to overproduce smaller walleye.
While commissioners asked specifics on the plan, most questions directed at FWP centered on the public involvement process. Public meetings in Helena and Great Falls meant to contribute to the draft plan saw modest attendance while meetings in Butte, Bozeman and Townsend saw virtually no members of the public show up. That led to several questions about how FWP attempted to reach out to the public and suggestions for better public involvement strategies going forward.
Commissioner Richard Stuker of Chinook was also troubled by the absence of committee members at several meetings.
“That’s a red flag for the department for how poorly attended some of those meetings were,” Commissioner Logan Brower of Scobey said.
Anglers testifying all expressed frustration at the lack of medium sized walleye and most said they believed FWP has not done enough to counter the trend toward smaller fish.
Dale Gilbert of Ulm testified on decades of experience fishing the reservoirs, and said that FWP has been trying the same management techniques for the last 20 to 25 years.
“We’re doing exactly the same things right now and what I’m seeing is it’s not working,” he said of walleye management. “It can and has been better while at the same time having a quality trout fishery.”
Matt Zeadow of Townsend told commissioners echoed the belief that current management is not working while Brian Tomlinson of Harlowton called the quality of fishing on Canyon Ferry for walleye “dismal.”
Several commenters agreed with commissioners that development of the plan could have used more public input.
Commissioner Tim Aldrich of Missoula cautioned about the “considerable discussion of walleye” going forward, emphasizing the importance of continuing to look at all species in the reservoirs and ensuring viable populations of trout and perch.
FWP officials said they will look at expanding outreach to solicit more public input and look to bring a draft plan back to the commission next year.