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FWP panel debates use of motorboats on Bitterroot, Clark Fork rivers

Bitterroot River Stevensville
Posted at 10:31 AM, Feb 23, 2023

MISSOULA - A petition for Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) to allow motorized boats on the Bitterroot River into the summer months was withdrawn, but only after the FWP commission debated creating a working group to consider it.

On Wednesday, the FWP commission considered a handful of petitions brought by citizens to change regulations on some western Montana waterbodies. But the confusion and differences of opinion that resulted, left citizens and some commissioners feeling less confident in the process.

The two petitions asking to allow more powered boats on the Bitterroot and Clark Fork Rivers were the easiest to deal with.

Craig Thomas of Stevensville petitioned to be able to use smaller motorized boats on the Bitterroot River beyond the current allowed period of Oct. 1 to Jan. 31 but later withdrew the proposal after the commissioners’ discussion.

FWP Region 2 Supervisor Randy Arnold told the commission the ban on motorboats on the Clark Fork, Blackfoot and Bitterroot rivers was created in 2011 after the demolition of the Milltown Dam and Reservoir because there was no longer as much water in the rivers to support motorized use. FWP retained access on the Bitterroot River only for small boats in the fall for bird hunting.

New Region 2 commissioner Jeff Burrows said he didn’t support the petition, having floated the Bitterroot River. With its braided channels and mobile cobble stream bed, the river can’t support motor boats except in certain stretches and dragging boats between them could damage the stream bottom. Thomas said he owns a hovercraft that has a “lift” of 7 to 10 inches, so it doesn’t disturb the stream bed.

Commissioner Brian Cebull recommended setting up a working group like the commission did for a petition related to the Boulder River near Big Timber.

“There’s new technology since 2011 when this ARM was adopted,” Cebull said. “I’m a multi-use supporter, and if it’s possible, given new technology, I would suggest we form a public group. I know I keep burdening the department with these. But I would advocate that that become the procedure for petitions.”

Burrows pushed back, saying he’d received many comments on the petition, which were about 100-to-1 in opposition.

“We don’t want to bog our people on the ground down with unnecessary committees and meetings when we kind of know the ultimate outcome. I would like to think of us as a coarse filter for these appeals, that we provide our input into that petition and not just have a blanket process that says we have to set up a working group,” Burrows said.

FWP Region 2 contains the Bitterroot River so Burrows got all of the comments. Other commissioners hadn’t seen them, so they asked that all comments on petitions be sent to all commissioners.

Thomas said he hadn’t realized why the ban had been created and was willing to withdraw his petition. He suggested that FWP create a checklist for petitioners with people to contact so they can be educated before filing the petition.

James Crews of Stevensville submitted the other petition to allow kayaks or similar boats with electric propulsion on the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers. But the commission won’t take that up until April because Crews came down with COVID-19.

The point of working groups was further questioned during the discussion of a third petition.

The owners of Lake Five Resort asked FWP to prohibit wake surfing and the augmentation of boats to increase wake size and to create a no-wake zone from April 1 until July 15 on Lake Five, southwest of Glacier National Park. That splits the season, allowing some wake after mid-July. The petition said the Lake Five Resort represents many landowners around the lake.

Petitioner Dan Simonson said many landowners on the small lake were already concerned about damage due to boat wake in 1991, and it’s only worsened with the advent of trick skiing and wakeboarding. New boats are built heavier — more than 14,000 pounds — to create more wake that repeatedly slams against the banks of Lake Five, eroding them.

Simonson brought photos of those banks eroding through the years.

“It is the only lake larger than 30 acres I know of that doesn’t have a no-wake zone,” Simonson said. “I think there are appropriate places for these boats and questionable places. Fourteen thousand pounds is a lot of displacement, that’s a lot of power.”

Once again, a commissioner — Patrick Tabor this time — proposed that a working group be created to look at the issue. He said it was a high-use body of water and safety can be an issue.

“But I don’t think one recreation type of user trumps another one. And that’s what we’re having here is competing values of how people like to recreate,” Tabor said.

When asked if he would accept the proposal, Simonson was disappointed.

“It either dies or we do a working group, right?” Simonson said. “My only concern with the working group is it’s another season of the same debauchery over there. Kind of like dominos; as soon as that shore is scarred, after 10, 20 years of that, I don’t know how you get it back.”

Simonson had listened to an earlier agenda item regarding a petition that landowners had brought in October 2021 to make Church Slough into a no-wake area because increasing boat traffic was causing safety issues, noise and bank erosion from wake.

Instead of dealing with the petition, the FWP commission created a working group that met in August 2022. The 11-member working group recommended that the commission adopt a 200-foot no-wake zone on either side of the 1,000-foot-wide slough and prohibit wakeboarding or wake surfing in the slough.

But on Wednesday, the commission denied the working group's recommendation although commissioners KC Walsh and Susan Kirby Walsh voted to approve. Brad Fralick, a representative of the Water Sports Industry Association, was the only commenter to oppose the recommendation.

Tabor said the commission should come up with a statewide policy to deal with situations on sloughs, but his opinion was the commission couldn't do anything about erosion damage because it didn't involve safety or protection of fish and wildlife. Walsh disagreed, saying bank erosion affects fisheries so it is something FWP should oversee.

Simonson had commented in favor of the Church Slough recommendation so he wasn’t optimistic about the future of the Lake Five petition.

“It’s about Commissioner Tabor and his idea of what the constraints are on the commission. But Commissioner Walsh commented - after everybody decided (against) Church Slough - that he wasn’t 100% sure if that was out of the parameters of Fish and Wildlife,” Simonson said. “I’m not sure that the reason you guys aren’t accepting it is actually correct. From what I’m seeing, I’m not in agreement.”

Also on Wednesday, the commission approved the purchase of the 540-acre Sweathouse Creek conservation easement on land owned by the Hackett Family west of Victor, saving the land from possible subdivision and development.

The $3 million to buy the easement will come from the Habitat Montana Program matched with federal Pittman Robertson Wildlife Restoration funds. Additional funding has been secured through the Ravalli County Open Lands Bond, Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at