By Eve Byron - December 27, 2019 - Originally published in the Missoulian
Jim Crews’ petition to allow hovercraft to operate on the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers through Missoula year-round is set to come before Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission during a special work session on Jan. 6 in Helena.
Previously, the commission postponed the hovercraft hearing until the commission’s Feb. 6 meeting. But the hearing was moved up a month after commissioners decided to also work at the January meeting on changes to the controversial elk hunting shoulder seasons, which are meant to cull the populations in hunting districts that are over management objectives.
The petition from Crews, of Stevensville, generated a “ton of comments,” according to Becky Docktor, Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ chief legal counsel, even though the proposal hasn’t been put out formally for public comments.
While most of those comments weren’t available to the Missoulian Friday due in large part to absences from FWP staff during the holiday season, Missoula-based Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Tim Aldrich said that he’s heard an earful from people, with most of them opposing the petition.
“The vast majority of people are saying no. We have been over this before and it shouldn’t be allowed,” Aldrich said on Friday. “Mr. Crews and a very small number of his supporters have been the only ones that are at all supportive of the proposal. Most are saying absolutely not.
“It’s a public safety and welfare issue. When the rivers get low like the Bitterroot can, it has a lot of bends and places people sneak in with tubes and standup boards; it’s really tough to manage that and have high-speed watercraft in the mix.”
The closed section of the river through Missoula includes Brennan’s Wave, popular with kayakers, and stretches that are popular with stand-up paddle boarders and inner tubers.
One group that has weighed in was the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, whose board conservation director Greg Munther wrote that the use of 20 horsepower motors on watercraft was intended only to allow continuation of a history of waterfowl hunters accessing those waters. Those waterfowl hunters primarily use them in a downstream direction, and the lower horsepower-boats are fairly quiet.
“In contrast, hovercrafts are noisy, very disruptive and would greatly disturb nearly all aquatic and terrestrial wildlife in the river corridor, as well as residents along the river and other river recreationists,” Munther wrote. “Hovercrafts, in our opinion, are an example of watercraft technology creep gone wild.”
He adds that the majority of streams in Montana have no motorized restrictions, and the commission should elect to maintain the current balance.
The Clark Fork Coalition and Bitterroot Trout Unlimited also have come out in opposition to the petition.
The administrative register notice of the changes in 2011 notes that the commission received 109 comments with concerns involving motorized use tied to sections of the river where the volume of use is highest and the potential for accidents is greatest.
Motorized boats are allowed on the Bitterroot and the section of the Clark Fork River that runs through Missoula, but only from Oct. 1 to Jan. 31. Even during that time, they’re required to use motors that are 20 horsepower or less.
Crews argues that he already has the legal right to operate his hovercrafts, but it will cost him $11,500 to comply with the lower horsepower requirements for those rivers. Most hovercrafts motors range from 29 to 100 horsepower, which is necessary to stay afloat. That power typically goes to twin engines, one of which provides lift on a cushion of air as the other engine powers that large fan on the back of the hovercraft that propels it forward.
The cost of dropping the hovercraft’s horsepower is prohibitive to most people, Crews said, and that violates Montana’s Administrative Rules on river recreation that say they must be “technically feasible, legal, affordable, measurable, enforceable, and reasonable to administer.”
“That’s impossible to hit, so something is wrong,” Crews told the Missoulian. “Sure, it’s technically feasible, but it’s not affordable to most people. Do you have an extra $11,500 laying around? It would take a six-day road trip to Houston, Texas, to pick up the parts and one or two weeks’ time to put it together. That’s not affordable to most people.
“Twenty years ago people were on that river and they had motors and boats, and they passed a rule that 15 horsepower was the limit, so everybody recreating on the river got kicked off the river. Ten years later they changed it to 20 hp. Those motors have propellers and can damage aquatic life, fish and rocks.”
Crews said the hovercrafts are lighter on the land that regular motors, and the winter time frame in which he’s allowed to operate is unreasonable.
“It’s 21 degrees right now. Do you want to go on the hovercraft? Where is the justice in that? I can’t take my 8-year-old grandson on the river because it’s too cold and if we capsize the boat, we’d die quickly,” Crews said.
He adds that he’s heard a lot of words of encouragement, and plans to be at the meeting in Helena to make his case.
“We have a right to petition our government to get things changes,” Crews said.
FWP staff is recommending that the commission deny Crews’ petition, noting that motorboats are “defined 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 situation to do the same,” staff members note in an analysis provided to the commission, adding that during the rule-making process, more than 600 comments were taken, with 73% supporting restrictions on motorized use. “Providing an exception for one would encourage others.”
Staff noted that where horsepower restrictions were adopted nine years ago, 20 horsepower was chosen “because it is the largest, portable motor horsepower, thus reducing speed and noise while providing fall hunting opportunities and access to land.”
A formal public comment period hasn’t been launched yet, although the commission will take comments at the meeting, which begins at 9 a.m. at FWP headquarters at 1420 E. Sixth Ave. in Helena. The meeting is broadcast for listening only at fwp.mt.gov, but people who don’t want to drive to Helena but want to comment can do some from the Region 2 headquarters at 3201 Spurgin Road, where the meeting will be live-streamed.
If the commission opts to initiate rulemaking, the public also can comment after the proposed language is published in the Montana Register.
The commission also can deny the petition, which leaves the existing rules in place.