Glacier National Park, Flathead National Forest look to track usage on rivers

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Rafters head down the Middle Fork last week.

The Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park are embarking on a joint plan this summer to track river use on the North and Middle Forks of the Flathead, with the eventual goal of crafting management plans for the Wild and Scenic rivers.

The initial plans date back to 1980 and 1986. Since then, visitor numbers to the region have surged, but the management plans have stayed untouched. In Glacier, nearly 3 million visited the Park last year. In 1986, Glacier saw a little more than 1.5 million visitors.

While anecdotal evidence indicates the rivers are getting more crowded with floaters and fishermen, the agencies don’t have baseline data for river usage, said Chris Prew, forest recreation program manager for the Flathead National Forest.

Over the next two summers, remote cameras and traffic counters will count how many people are using the waters. The effort does not extend into the wilderness stretches of the Middle Fork or South Fork.

Prew said the Forest Service will also look at the South Fork outside the wilderness, and eventually hopes to gauge traffic inside the wilderness for the South and Middle Forks as well.

The actual data gathering will be done by the University of Montana under the guidance of Wayne Freimund. Freimund has done previous studies for Glacier, measuring visitor use along the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor.

The cameras, Prew noted, allow researchers to count people, but it blurs the image so they’re not identifiable.

A large number of river users are guided — a total of five outfitters have permits to guide on the waterways on rafting and fishing trips.

The bulk of commercial use is on the lower Middle Fork between Moccasin Creek and West Glacier — a popular section because of its whitewater.

“For the last few years, we have heard at our annual meetings with North Fork residents that river use seems to be increasing,” said Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber. “This information will allow us to better understand how much, where and when use is occurring. It will help us to better plan for proper facilities and management.”

In addition to the river monitoring, Glacier will also do trail counts in the North Fork, Two Medicine, Many Glacier, Goat Haunt, and Belly River regions of the Park, said spokeswoman Lauren Alley.

A $25,000 grant from the Glacier National Park Conservancy will help pay for the effort.

That data will be used to eventually craft a backcountry and wilderness stewardship plan for the Park.

Last year, Glacier saw more than 38,000 people camp in the backcountry — an increase of 17 percent over the previous year and a 27 percent increase over 2014.

Alley said work on the stewardship plan will likely begin with public scoping next year.

The river management plans are still at least a few years out and will depend on funding to be completed, Prew noted.

Like the pending plan, the original 1986 plans were also based on river use studies conducted over two years.

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