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Legislators consider licenses for fishing guides

JACKSON — Early every summer, Jackson Hole fishing guides trailer their drift boats to the simmered Green and New Fork rivers to cast for trout while the hometown Snake River is still sediment-choked, running high and all but unfishable.

Sublette County Rep. Albert Sommers, whose constituents compete for the same waters, has heard all about the migratory anglers, whose presence is not always welcomed.

“Last year, one day there were 24 or 25 boats at one of the state land access points on the New Fork, and nearly all of them were [county] 22, Idaho, Montana plates — and nearly all of them were guided trips,” Sommers said.

Sommers checked in with the Wyoming Office of State Lands of Investments, learning that the agency had issued only six or seven permits authorizing commercial use of the ramps statewide. Everyone else, he figured, was skirting the rules, and the small-staffed state lands office couldn’t keep up with enforcing its regulations.

That experience is part of what motivated the fourth-generation Republican cattle rancher to draft House Bill 276, which would establish a state licensing requirement for fishing guides and outfitters similar to what’s already in place for commercial big game hunters.

The legislation is being developed between sessions by the Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee, whose members gathered in Thermopolis this week.

Wyoming Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik took questions about the effect of commercial fishing on the Equality State’s fisheries, and his agency’s capacity to administer and enforce a licensing program.

“We don’t believe there’s a biological issue,” Nesvik told lawmakers at the meeting. “It’s a crowding/quality of experience issue. That’s why we’re having this discussion.”

Rep. John Freeman, of Sweetwater County, joked about how state xenophobia might be a factor.

“Learning how to fish with my father ... if there were five license plates from Wyoming then that was OK,” Freeman said. “But if there were five license plates from Wyoming and one from Colorado or Utah, then it was overused.”

Sommers’ bill mirrors the structure that’s in place for governing hunting guides, a task that’s taken on by the Wyoming State Board of Outfitters and Professional Guides. The pricing, he said, is similar: $600 annually for a business-owning fishing outfitter and $250 for an individual guide. Insurance policy requirements would be established, and the bill would create an avenue for investigating complaints and violations.

The legislation would also authorize the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to set daily limits on the number of guided boats that could launch into any river or stream within the state’s jurisdiction.

The most heavily guided river in Wyoming is the North Platte. The next tier of commercialized waters includes the Snake, Green, New Fork and Bighorn rivers, Game and Fish officials said at the committee meeting.

One local outfitter, Snake River Anglers owner Will Dornan, told the Jackson Hole Daily that in most places the state’s licensing system would be redundant to existing permitting structures and limits that are already in place through the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. At first blush, he opposed Sommers legislative effort.

“It’s funny that it comes out of Sublette County,” Dornan said. “They get fussy about seeing a 22 plate, but I don’t get fussy when I see a 23 plate come up to hunt elk. It’s all Wyoming.”

“There are small areas that may need to be addressed, but they’re small areas,” Dornan said. “The big, heavy use areas have all been permitted.”

The Salt River, he said, is an example of an often-guided fishery where permitting has fallen through the cracks because the big access points are state-owned.

Game and Fish’s Fisheries Chief Alan Osterland told lawmakers that the best estimate for the total number of fishing guides and outfitters in Wyoming is 1,275.

The state agency estimated that administering and enforcing the licensing program would cost around $940,000 the first year, and nearly $700,000 annually thereafter. The estimated revenue from the license fees proposed in Sommers’ bill is about $450,000 annually.

The state of Wyoming has had licensing requirements for fishing guides in the past, Nesvik said, but it was during a different era.

“Taking a drift boat out and floating down the river and guiding fishing trips is a fairly new thing within the last couple of decades,” Nesvik said. “It wasn’t there the last time Game and Fish administered this, which was, I think, in the ’80s.”

Past legislative bills attempting the same feat lawmakers are after in 2019 have failed in 1991, 1993, 2005 and 2014. A lack of unanimity within the fishing outfitting community, Sommers said, likely doomed the past efforts.

Unregulated waters like the New Fork, in Sommers’ view, make a good case for taking action now, before overcrowding worsens.

“How bad do we want to beat that up?” Sommers said of the New Fork. “It’s a question we need to ask ourselves.”

“I just encourage people to think, ‘What do you want to see in 20 or 30 years in Wyoming?’ ” he said. “Let’s work toward that. That’s what I would encourage the guides to think about.”

The Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee took no action on the fishing guide licensing legislation, and it plans to resume the conversation at its October meeting in Dubois.

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