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Montana group seeks to limit motorized boats on prized streams

Fly fishers cast from drift boats and rafts on the Missouri River near Craig, Montana. (Rich Landers)
Fly fishers cast from drift boats and rafts on the Missouri River near Craig, Montana. (Rich Landers)

WATERSPORTS -- Limits on jet boats and other motorized watercraft on nearly 50 western Montana river and stream segments are being sought by a sportsman's group. Public hearings are set to begin 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 Independent Record reports.

Advancements and future advancements of motorized technology that enable the crafts to be more invasive with greater range are as among the reasons for bringing the initiative, the Missoula-based group says. Invasive species issues also are a concern.

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.

“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.”

Here's more from IR reporter Tom Kuglin:

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.

Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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