An environmental assessment on proposed restrictions for recreational and commercial use on the West Fork and Upper Bitterroot River is available for public perusal.

The proposed rules are intended to “address concerns about congestion on the river and social conflicts between river users,” according to the document released Friday afternoon by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The proposed rules are based on the recommendations of a 16-member citizen advisory council.

Chrissy Oschell, the FWP Region 2 River Recreation Manager, said she expects a lot of public interest in the proposals. That’s why they’ve extended the normal comment period from 30 days to five weeks, and are holding three public hearings — one each in Hamilton, Missoula and Butte.

“When it comes to commercial use, guiding and outfitting are important to our economy,” Oschell said on Friday. “It’s also important to residents of Ravalli County. We’ve heard a lot from people about this, which kicked off the process in the first place.”

Proposed changes include:

 Eliminating floating of any kind, including the use of a tube, raft, vessel, or similar device, on Fridays from July 1 through Sept. 15 from Painted Rocks Dam to Applebury Forest Service Site;

 Prohibiting commercial fishing and floating operators from operating without a permit between Painted Rocks Dam and Wally Crawford Fishing Access Site.

 Restricting commercial use permit holders to two floats per section per day in four sections between the Painted Rocks Dam and the Wally Crawford Fishing Access Site.

 Prohibiting commercial fishing and floating operators from operating from June 1 to Sept. 15 on Fridays between the Painted Rocks Dam and the Applebury Forest Service Site; on Saturdays between the Applebury Forest Service Site and the Trapper Creek Job Corp Site; on Sundays between the Trapper Creek Job Corp Site to the Hannon Memorial Fishing Access Site; and on Mondays between the Hannon Memorial Fishing Access Site to the Wally Crawford Fishing Access Site.

In comments included in the Environmental Assessment, Fish, Wildlife and Parks administrators wrote that the popularity of the Bitterroot River is “contributing to growing concern over the quality of the angling and recreational experience of those waters.”

“For a number of years the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has received a large volume of letters and emails from people concerned about the overall amount of angling pressure, level of commercial use, congestion on the water and at access sites, and how this use is affecting the quality of their experience,” the agency wrote. “To substantiate these concerns, the department conducted surveys to assess people's perceptions about conditions on these rivers, and whether conditions have displaced anglers to fishing on other rivers as an alternative.

“Based on the public's concerns and the survey results, the department concluded that there was sufficient reason to initiate a river recreation management process pursuant to the river recreation management rules.”

Oschell said the citizen advisory council included outfitters, West Fork area landowners, long-time anglers, members of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, and Trout Unlimited – “a nice mix of outfitters, private folks and people with special interest groups."

While FWP Commissioner Dan Vermillion — himself a fishing guide — noted at a recent FWP meeting that most of the proposed restrictions are on outfitters, Oschell added that’s because about 75 percent of the use on the West Fork and Upper Bitterroot River is through outfitters and guides.

“Most rivers that we permit, like the Blackfoot, are about 20 percent commercial use,” she said. “On the West Fork, there aren’t many scenic floaters or tubers — we just don’t have that multiple use going on. It’s mainly anglers.”

Oschell said that about 75 percent of the outfitters queried about the proposed regulations are in favor of something like this.

“Their clients were experiencing crowding, and that was decreasing their enjoyment to some degree,” Oschell said.

The documents outlining the proposed restrictions can be found online at http://fwp.mt.gov/news/publicNotices/rules/pn_0232.html Comments must be received by FWP no later than Oct. 13.

For specific questions on the proposed rules and Draft EA, contact Oschell by phone at 406-542-5562 or email her at coschell@mt.gov.

Each public hearing begins at 6 p.m. and will take place on Oct. 2 at the FWP Region 2 Headquarters, 3201 Spurgin Rd. in Missoula; Oct 3 at the Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor’s Office, 1801 No. First St. in Hamilton; and Oct. 10 at the FWP Butte Area Resource Office, 1820 Meadowlark Lane in Butte.

The FWP Commission will review public comments and make a final decision on the proposed rule language at its regularly scheduled meeting, Dec. 7-8, 2017, in Helena.

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