Calling all commenters

Anglers and floaters taking to the Bitterroot this summer can expect something new on the river's banks: comment boxes. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, in conjunction with several other entities, plans to expand a project now familiar along the Blackfoot River in hopes of better understanding recreational use patterns and gauging exactly how the public feels about conditions on the waterway.

Comment kiosks first popped up on the Blackfoot three years ago, and FWP River Recreation Manager Chet Crowser says the agency has noted "steady participation" from recreationists in filling out survey cards. River users and private landowners alike have for years expressed concern about crowding on the river, particularly on lower stretches near Whitaker Bridge. The comment cards were never really designed to estimate user numbers, Crowser says. But they show how recreationists rate the Blackfoot.

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"We've gotten very high satisfaction with the level of crowding at put-ins, the level of crowding at take-outs and satisfaction with the number of encounters people are having on the river," Crowser says. This summer, FWP and the Bureau of Land Management will build on that information by conducting in-person surveys.

Expanding that data-collecting effort to the Bitterroot could inform similar questions about the volume of use there. It's no mystery that the Bitterroot is an extremely popular fishery, Crowser says. "In terms of angler days alone, the Bitterroot far exceeds the Blackfoot." FWP is eager to see just how that popularity impacts the public's appreciation of the river. The agency expects to rely entirely on existing staff to execute the project, and Crowser estimates the administrative costs, including the cost for the kiosks, will run between $5,000 and $10,000.

Back in 2005, FWP conducted mail-in surveys of resident anglers—part of a study examining the effects of increasing fishing pressure on both the Bitterroot River and Rock Creek. Of 166 anglers who responded about the Bitterroot, FWP found that 60 percent "reported they are no longer fishing there or are infrequently fishing there now." Roughly 39 percent of those claimed they'd been displaced for "social reasons," including overcrowding.

Crowser says the new data should help contextualize the experience of users "so we can better respond to questions about what the recreation conditions are out there." If FWP gets useful data, it will look to expand the program to other waterways.

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