Commercial restrictions proposed for upper Bitterroot River


DARBY, Mont. - Anglers and floaters who use the upper Bitterroot River could see restrictions on commercial use of the river.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks formed a citizen advisory committee over concerns the popular river has become too congested.

The proposed rules came by consensus from that advisory committee in an effort to balance public and commercial use.

NBC Montana met a couple anglers who were fishing the West Fork on Tuesday.

Fisherman Stephen Neff said he supports regulations that would balance public use with commercial. He remembers fishing the river last spring and said at that time he thought it was too crowded.

"When you wouldn't think of the crowds before the height of the tourist season," he said, "and it was like a parade of boats."

But Paul Donaldson, who has fished and floated the river his entire life, said he doesn't think crowding is that much of an issue, at least at this point.

"Sure you might have to pull over sometimes," he said, "and let people pass and move around you. But that's just part of fishing and enjoying the river for everybody."

FWP said the proposed rules would balance noncommercial with commercial use on the upper Bitterroot from the East and West Fork confluence downstream to Wally Crawford Fishing Access and on the entire West Fork below Painted Rocks Dam.

Regional fisheries manager for FWP Pat Saffel said the proposed changes are to insure everyone gets their time on the river.

"To provide opportunity for multiple user types," he said. "And we do that by separating them in time and space and making sure that everybody has a chance to use this resource."

Saffel said fish populations are OK, but he said there is growing social conflict on the river.

He said the Bitterroot River is the most heavily fished river in the region.

Sean O'Brien is a fly-fishing outfitter who served on the committee. O'Brien said he would have preferred the restrictions be limited to the West Fork.

He thinks the proposal is a way to be equitable to everyone. But he said his business will feel the effect.

"We're not going to be able to put as many boats up there," he said, "which is a good thing and a bad thing. It's going to affect everyone's business."

He said that includes businesses in the Bitterroot that are tied to commercial outfitters. That could include everything from retail to restaurants.

If approved the rules would provide one noncommercial day in each of four sections of the river from Painted Rocks Dam to Wally Crawford Fishing Access between June 1 and Sept. 15.

A public hearing is being held on the proposed changes and the draft environmental assessment in Hamilton Tuesday evening at the Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor's Office.

Another hearing is scheduled in Butte at the FWP Butte Area Resource Office at 6 p.m. Oct. 10.

Public comment ends Oct. 13.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission will review public comment and make a final decision on the proposed rule language at its regularly scheduled meeting Dec. 7-8 in Helena.

To review the entire rule proposal and EA and to comment go to FWP's website, under News, then Recent Public Notices. You may also request information or comment by mail from Region 2 FWP, 3201 Spurgin Rd., Missoula, 59804, by phone at 406-542-5540 or by emailing

Comments must be received by FWP no later than 5 p.m. on Oct. 13.

For specific questions on the proposed rules and draft EA contact Chrissy Oschell, FWP Region 2 River Recreation Manager at 406-542-5562 or email

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