Jim Crews of Stevensville wants to fly his hovercraft on the Clark Fork and Bitterroot Rivers. He presented a petition to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission at the end of October asking the commission to recognize that Hovercraft are a separate category or class of powered watercraft and exempt them from the 20 horsepower limitations in the current rules. His petition is on the FWP Commission agenda for December 5.
In his petition Crews asserts that requiring hovercraft to meet the 20-horsepower limitations on watercraft is “unreasonable” because there seems to be no hovercraft commercially available that can meet those restrictions. He said that most hovercraft available range from 29 to 100 horsepower. He claims that no research or comparisons were done on the differences between hovercraft and other watercraft when the regulations were being adopted.
Crews also criticizes the regulations for limiting the use by motorized watercraft to October 1 to January 31.
“By establishing these dates,” he writes, “the Commission has eliminated all use of the Bitterroot River by motorized watercraft users during the warmer months and relegated recreational use of the river to those times where there is increased danger on the river due to thermal conditions and may create conflict with waterfowl hunters.”
During 2011, the Clark Fork and Bitterroot Rivers underwent a collaborative river recreation rule-making process in Region 2. These rules were adopted after a significant public process that included two comment periods and over 600 comments. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of the comments supported restrictions on motorized use. Safety of fast-moving boats in the proximity of other users and noise were often cited. Personal Watercraft (i.e., jet skis) and jet boats were of particular concern because they can access shallow water areas at high speeds that otherwise preclude fast moving vessels. Where horsepower restrictions were adopted, 20 hp was chosen because it is the largest, portable motor horsepower, thus reducing speed and noise while providing fall hunting opportunities and access to lands.
The Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has recommended that the Commission deny the proposed rule change, arguing the law [MCA § 23-2-505(7)(a)] defines a motorboat as a vessel propelled by any machinery and hovercrafts fall under this definition.
“To provide an exception for one watercraft would be contrary to the statutory definition and would encourage other similarly situated to do the same,” they state, pointing to the “heavy public involvement” in 2011 planning process.
“The conclusion of this process resulted in the current regulations on the Clark Fork, its tributaries and the Bitterroot,” they state. “These regulations have extensive public support in Region 2. These regulations are no more restrictive towards hovercraft than they are any other vessel rated at over 20 horsepower. Providing an exception for one would encourage others.”
Both Trout Unlimited and the Clark Fork Coalition have come out against the proposed rule change.
The Commission will take public comment at their next meeting in Helena on December 5. Although on the agenda for around 10:30 a.m., the actual timing could vary significantly. The Helena meeting will be broadcast remotely to the FWP Region 2 headquarters at 3201 Spurgin Road in Missoula where public comment will also be accepted.
If the Commission opts to initiate rulemaking, the public will have the opportunity to provide comments after the proposed rule language is published in the Montana Register pursuant to the administrative rulemaking procedures.
The meeting also can be live-streamed from the fwp.mt.gov website, but people can only listen through their computer without comment.
The commission may deny the petition. Should this occur the rules will remain as they currently are.