The soothing sound of a mountain stream is hard to hear over the roar of a powerboat, and one organization wants only the former on some of Montana’s streams.
On Thursday, the Fish and Wildlife commission gave a nod to nature when it voted to initiate a rule-making process related to restricting certain types of motorized watercraft on several state streams.
The potential rule was initiated by Backcountry Hunters and Anglers' Quiet Waters petition, which asked the commission to preserve certain small streams from the noise and safety issues presented by high-tech, high-speed watercraft. The petition was based on the organization's stream-by-stream assessment of regulations, popular uses and potential conflicts, which found that many streams throughout the state have no formal restrictions on motorized use.
FWP chief warden Tom Flowers said FWP didn’t support the petition because there weren’t any conflicts on the proposed streams and the rule-making process is a lot of work for restrictions that FWP didn’t deem warranted.
But watercraft makers are solving the problem of needing clearance for propeller blades, and speedboats and personal watercraft can get into areas where they haven’t been before. So Montana might be the last best place because the machines that degrade other regions haven’t arrived in force yet.
Many Montana river enthusiasts still use rafts, canoes or kayaks to fish or navigate smaller streams or low water and inner-tubing is still a popular summer pastime. BHA spokesman Greg Munther said Montana needs to get out ahead of the motorized technology - including jet skis, airboats, motorized surfboards and an ATV that converts into a jet ski - that allows more people to exploit backwaters and backcountry with greater ease.
This isn’t the first time BHA has encouraged proactive regulation. In 2014, they successfully lobbied the commission to ban the use of drones for hunting.
“Are we going to wait until all this happens or are we going to take proactive action?” Munther said. “FWP has called this a drastic proposal. We’re accounting for less than 1 percent of Montana’s streams – hardly drastic.”
The proposal focuses on the tributaries and mainstems of the Bitterroot, Flathead, Missouri, and Yellowstone rivers. In the Bitterroot watershed, for example, the petition suggests closing all tributaries to motorized watercraft.
Munther emphasized that the proposed restrictions are focused on smaller streams – there is no attempt to shut down already-existing motorized use. But once speed boats start using on a stream, it will be harder to shut them down, Munther said.
“On some of these streams, there are people in inner tubes, their profile just a few feet above the water, and you have high-speed boats going by. It’s just unsafe. The smaller the river, the higher the level of conflict. We are basically trying to get ahead of the curve with common-sense regulations,” Munther said.
A dozen people from Kalispell to Billings commented in favor of the rule making, including Ben Long, who said FWP often hasn’t been able to manage changing technology already present on several lakes.
“It’s been both the number of people on the water and the types of watercraft they’re using,” Long said. “By the time motorized conflicts become so entrenched, it’s chaos, it’s anarchy. People die. People have died on Echo Lake.”
Hank Fisher, author of “Paddling Montana,” said a huge change has taken place on Montana’s streams in the past 40 years and more people are showing upon more rivers.
“I think of a typical stretch (of the Clark Fork River) in Missoula and where you used to see one person, now there’s 50. While those changes haven’t occurred everywhere across the state, they will in time,” Fisher said. “Essentially, this proposal maintains the status quo.”
Former FWP commissioner Bob Ream recalled trying to deal retroactively with similar issues on the Clark Fork River, and he encouraged the department to develop a statewide stream management plan similar to some of its wildlife management plans.
“It’s a really good step to look ahead at river recreation in Montana rather than going at individual cases,” Ream said.
Commission chair Dan Vermillion said he owns a jet boat but agreed that they weren’t appropriate in certain situations as rivers get more populated. Since some of the restrictions are just for certain times of the year, Vermillion said he supported moving ahead with the process.
After being told that the rule making process could be lengthy and involve individual rules for each of the streams, the commission voted unanimously to send the petition out to public comment.