A controversial proposal to revise the state's stream access law died during a Montana Senate committee hearing in Helena on Tuesday, and opponents are breathing a collective sigh of relief.
House Bill 309 reopened a simmering dispute over the Mitchell Slough, which runs through the Bitterroot Valley property of 1980s rocker Huey Lewis and other landowners. The Montana Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the slough is open to anglers under the state's stream access law.
Ranchers and others had sought to make clear that irrigation ditches are not open to anglers. But fishermen argued the bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, would have closed to access more than just ditches.
The measure had cleared the House, only to face a large crowd of opponents in the Senate. It was tabled late Tuesday in an 8-3 vote in the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee.
Anglers applauded the committee's decision.
Bob Olson, a Butte resident and president of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, said anglers across Montana were abuzz after the tabling of HB309.
"We're awful excited," he said Tuesday night.
Shortly after the committee tabled the bill, Montana Trout Unlimited posted the news on Facebook.
"HB 309 was just tabled in committee! Thanks to everyone who wrote, called, drove, testified ... it was truly a team effort," the post read.
Olson said anglers from throughout Montana and beyond contacted lawmakers to voice their opposition to the bill, and packed a Senate hearing on the matter earlier this month.
The lawmakers listened, and references to the bill's large opposition were made before Tuesday's vote.
"It just proves that all the hard work pays off," Olson said. "We're just elated we were able to stop what we didn't think was a very good bill at all. Now we fish."
Steve Luebeck, also of the George Grant chapter, said the committee's decision is "about as good of a result as we could expect."
Luebeck and others were concerned that a revised version of the bill would survive committee, and that the fight would continue over stream access.
Committee members opted against advancing even a significantly revised version of the bill, however, after strong angler opposition.
"It's an outstanding day for people who like to fish Montana's rivers and streams," Luebeck said.
Luebeck said he hopes lawmakers learned a lesson from HB309, and warned against similar legislation during future sessions.
"Stream access is so near and dear to the hearts of Montanans," he said. "I hope they realize that this is a bad idea and we don't have to play these childish games in the Montana Legislature. I hope this is the last time we see a bill like this."
Mike Marcum, co-owner of the StoneFly Fly Shop in Butte, called HB309 vague and said it "could have done a lot of bad things" for stream access.
If the bill accomplished anything, he said, it was uniting Montanans and encouraging them to become involved.
"I think it proves that people need to stand up for what they believe in," he said. Luebeck agreed.
"We live to fish another day," he said.