Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Data show the Blackfoot River is being loved to death, but that knowledge doesn’t make finding solutions any easier.

Earlier this month, about two dozen members of the Blackfoot Challenge Water Committee met at the Lubrecht Forest conference room to hear Christine Oschell, Fish, Wildlife & Parks River Recreation Manager, summarize recent FWP river user surveys and to discuss if anything could be done to limit recreation and its related damage to the river.

The committee includes landowners, anglers, FWP employees and conservation representatives.

The surge in river usage that started in 2020 with the pandemic was accompanied by increasing use of the Blackfoot’s upper reaches, which have traditionally been used only by anglers and outfitters. The reach from the Harry Morgan access site to River Junction saw the biggest jump, due to the addition of tubers and paddle-boarders.

The water committee has been meeting for a year, and Oschell made a similar report last year that used data from cameras at river access points in 2020 and 2021. However, no camera data was gathered this year, because analyzing the film is time-consuming and the camera manufacturer went out of business, Oschell said.

Instead, Oschell conducted in-person surveys this year.

Almost 20% of people using the Blackfoot River are coming from out-of-state, with an increasing number coming from Texas, compared to 2019 data. People also came from New York, Pennsylvania, California and neighboring states.

People are the most dissatisfied at the access sites, Oschell said, but once they’re away from the pinch points, they’re happy on the river.

FWP Region 2 supervisor Randy Arnold said the increasing diversity of users - tubers, paddle-boarders, kayakers and recreational rafters joining anglers and outfitters -  means the volume of people trying to get on and off the river has doubled.

The creation of more float-in campsites has added to the river’s popularity, as data from the new campsite reservation system shows. About 30% of the users are from out-of-state, with Texans again in the majority, Oschell said. 

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Unfortunately, while permit holders are required to pack out human waste, FWP didn’t anticipate the amount of dog waste, which was excessive this year, Oschell said. In the meantime, FWP is trying to curtail the illegal camping that occurs along the river.

“Ninety-eight percent are using the river for more than one night. So we know that people want a multi-night experience,” Oschell said. “We’re going to have to get more serious about when we open the reservation system, how we do the reservation system and how we’re going to handle it as it continues to be full every year.”

Some committee members questioned whether people really are happy on the river. Landowner Anne Nelson said tourists who have never been on the river wouldn’t know better. Landowner Jay Proops said he’s noticed a degradation of the fishing experience over his 30 years, so he doubted that anglers were satisfied.

“Last year, I counted 70 rigs at Harry Morgan put-in - that’s a tremendous amount of pressure on that stretch of the river,” Proops said. “I also personally counted seven boats going in the water by Paws Up. I’m told they’ll do short floats in the morning and repeat the same thing in the afternoon. When Paul Roos was outfitting, he said he’d never put in more than two boats at any one time or location because he felt it would just create too much pressure.”

Trout Unlimited executive director David Brooks suggested the surveys wouldn’t reflect the dissatisfaction of people who stopped coming to the Blackfoot River because of crowding. Oshell said she was trying to figure out how to conduct a mail survey of those people.

Published in 2010, the Blackfoot River Management Plan is somewhat out of date. Oschell said FWP is evaluating recreation along the river but Blackfoot landowners need to be involved.

When discussing what should be done, some committee members were frustrated that no action has been taken, even though it’s been talked about for years. Others worried about taking the wrong action urged more discussion.

Brooks said other river groups, such as the Madison River working group, have struggled to develop large river recreation plans due to all the stakeholders involved. Outfitters don’t want to give up their clients while recreational floaters often resist permit systems. Also, the plans have to be approved by the FWP commission, a hurdle many on the Blackfoot committee want to avoid.

“Those plans have taken a long time and, at points, been really stymied by sacrificing the good in search of the perfect. Rather than going forward with something, there’s been hesitancy. When in fact, plans that have gone forward have three-year and five-year reviews and can be changed. We don’t have to get it all right,” Brooks said. "Maybe it’s better to do something, try some things out, rather than be stymied by the concern that it’s not perfect.”

Arnold said he isn’t ready to develop a large regulatory rule at this point. The Blackfoot Challenge may be able to be more effective with smaller changes that don’t involve FWP, Arnold said. For example, commercial users could voluntarily regulate themselves.

“If at any point, this entire group says ‘let’s solve that;’ if that piece fits our administrative footprint, then I’d like to think we could grab that and move it forward,” Arnold said. “But the context should be sound enough that we don’t then have 20 new people come to the table and say ‘now I have an interest.’ Because that’s where these past processes in front of the commission really fail.”

Jerry O’Connell reminded the committee that it agreed during the spring meeting to start small with things like limits on party size. Others agreed that small changes could avoid the need to involve the FWP commission.

“We’ve been talking about this issue of overuse of the river for at least 10, probably 15 years now. We’ve talked a lot, and I haven’t seen any concrete things, actionable  items put forward to get something done to solve the problem,” Proops said. “How about starting with, instead of trying to limit past use of the river corridor, we look forward and put a cap on at least one part of the use?”

Fishing guide Pat Kane suggested regulating outfitting and large parties because they are the easiest to control.

“The outfitting needs to get under control. This is fishing, and it’s also the camps like Camp Utmost. There’s not enough room on the Blackfoot for another bus with 30 kids to show up at Scotty Brown Bridge while two or three boats are trying to get out. That’s an issue,” Kane said. “Bring the big operators to this table for a meeting because it needs to happen.”

Jack Mulcare of the Blackfoot Challenge said that any solution had to mesh with everything and everyone else in the valley, including the Forest Service. He suggested, for example, looking at all recreation in the watershed, from floating to snowmobiling, and make regulations that apply to all, such as managing parking.

The committee decided to make a subcommittee to focus on river recreation and a handful of small changes such as parking control.

Contract Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.