Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) has officially shelved a proposed recreational permit system for the Blackfoot River, eliminating, for now, a restrictive yet valuable backup plan for managing overcrowding on the popular waterway.
The decision didn't come lightly, says FWP Regional Park Manager Lee Bastian. Widespread protest from the Ovando community last fall—dozens of public comments and a 105-signature petition—prompted the agency to drop the framework for a permit system from its final Blackfoot River Recreation Management Plan released in March. Bastian says much of the concern centered on the economic consequences of limiting access to local fishing and floating opportunities.
"It was loud and clear they were not comfortable with it," Bastian says.
But the greatest motivator for back-burnering the permit proposal came from within the agency itself. Bastian says FWP lacked the recreational data needed to back its pitch, and has made collecting that information a top concern for management officials over the next two years.
"Based on what that data tells us, we may find ourselves here in a couple of years having to go down that road and actually look at what sort of a permit system would go in place," Bastian says. "But this time we would have the data in hand."
Other agencies with interests on the Blackfoot recognize the potential need for a permit system if the resource becomes too stressed. FWP and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is preparing to launch a resource management plan study of its own this spring, have escalated their presences on the river over the past decade in response to increased traffic. If the situation reaches a trigger point, the permit proposal could be put back on the table.
"That's still a tool they have available to them," says BLM Outdoor Recreation Planner Dick Fichtler. "It hasn't gone away, it just isn't provided for at this time."
Bastian just hopes that, should that day come, FWP has the evidence it needs to convince the public.
"We're wanting to do the right thing," Bastian says, "but we need good information to do it."