JACKSON — Snake River Angler owner Will Dornan says there’s never been anything like the current level of interest in hiring a fly-fishing guide to take a day’s float in Jackson Hole.
And the increase in use, tension at boat ramps and competition for a limited number of permits are most palpable, he said, on the 13-mile stretch of the Snake that flows between Wilson and South Park, where Teton County manages the river. The permitting system there and enforcement of rules that are supposed to uphold the Snake River Management Plan have failed, in the lifelong resident’s view.
“Run it permitted, and run it correctly with law enforcement,” Dornan said. “If not, get rid of it.”
Dornan’s frustrations with Teton County’s administration of the Snake start with what he contends are too many guides vying for too many daily permits. During the busy time in the heart of summer many of the 25 commercial fishing boats that can launch daily at the Wilson boat ramp are allocated to commercial fishing outfitters who can reserve up to four floats a day. Leftovers are available first come, first served, to anybody, although they’re supposed to have a client who’s booked a trip.
Allegations are flying that outfitters are sitting on permits and abusing the system. And some permits are now changing hands business to business, which the county is allowing. Other operators, Dornan said, are circumventing the regulatory system altogether, launching when boat ramp attendants aren’t around to verify that a trip is permitted.
Other fishing guides share the concern. Due to overuse and cutthroat trout that get pounded, Jackson Hole Anglers owner Dave Ellerstein said that the Wilson-to-South Park stretch of the Snake River has become the “least desirable section” in the valley. Teton County’s system of distributing permits — which was designed to give smaller guide companies a chance in the market — isn’t working, he said.
“The county tried to reinvent the wheel, despite everything that’s going on around them,” Ellerstein said. “And it just has failed.”
Until 2014, commercial use on the 33 miles of the Snake River through the privately owned portion of Jackson Hole was mostly unregulated and a free-for-all. As use increased, a new management plan was developed, and the Teton County/Jackson Parks and Recreation Department was appointed to administer the plan. A river coordinator, most recently longtime Teton County employee Mike Estes, was on staff to oversee the program, but this past winter that position was furloughed, vacated and then never filled.
Parks and Rec Director Steve Ashworth said Estes’ duties were split up among three other staffers, and it’s his opinion that the permitting system is working effectively. The only real change this year, he said, is that Teton County did away with a “waiting list” that reissued permits for allocated but unbooked trips. The original permittee formerly got a $28-per-boat full refund anytime, and the county handled determining who got the permit instead.
But this week, fishing guides received an email that informed them they could no longer cancel a trip less than two days before, because the waitlist was too hard to handle while the county was short-staffed. The change takes place today, July 28.
“If an outfitter wants to cancel a trip less than 48 hours prior, an option would be to give it to another outfitter,” Parks and Rec Administration Assistant Christina Ramos wrote in an email.
The way Snake River Fund Executive Director Jared Baecker reads that at first blush, Teton County is now authorizing companies to resell their allocated permits without any regulation.
Before the waitlist was done away with, Baecker had heard from guides who were frustrated with a lack of communication from Teton County. They would see an opening from a canceled permit, request it, but not hear back until it was too late. Instead of turning down the business they’d just take their client out fishing anyway.
“That just kind of violates what the whole plan’s intent was,” Baecker said. “The plan’s intent was to moderate use and allow new businesses in.”
Baecker agreed that use of the Snake has grown immensely.
According to the Snake River Management Plan, total use of the Wilson-to-South Park stretch of the Snake rarely exceeded 30 commercial boats per day as recently as 2001. Under the regulatory system up to about 70 put-ins are now being booked daily, including both scenic and fishing boats, according to a real-time booking calendar on the county’s website. Permits are often being maxed out.
“The river is simply bursting at the seams with use right now,” Baecker said. “Outfitters are busier than they’ve ever been, but there are capacities. And capacities that are limiting their ability to work.”
The permitting system worked better under the oversight of a dedicated river staffer, both Dornan and Ellerstein said.
“The only person who truly had a grip on it was Mike Estes,” Dornan said. “Mike was integral to it.”
Ellerstein agreed it helped to have one point person he could direct all his questions to.
“Before [Estes], there was a girl named Megan who did it, and she did a great job, too,” he said. “There just needs to be a position, a river management position.”
A Parks and Rec board member until 2020, Ellerstein said he learned that the Snake River administration program was well in the black through his current role on the Snake River Fund board.
“They’re only spending $20,000 a year on the Snake River Management Plan, but taking in $85,000,” Ellerstein said.
His board was “furious” to learn that the excess went into Teton County’s general fund and did not go back toward the resource. Proceeds could instead be put toward better administration, he said.
“People are talking about unsupervised times [at the ramp],” Ellerstein said. “Well maybe there shouldn’t be any unsupervised times. Or if people are gaming the computer system, well maybe they should pay for somebody to put in better software.”
Ashworth maintained that the permitting system is working, and he stood behind the decision to not fill the river manager position.
“We actually have a little more resources to it than we had before,” Ashworth said. “I’ve got three people in the summer who are all participating, whereas before we just had one.”
Talk of mismanagement and abuse of the system are just rumor, he said.
“There have been rumors of outfitters launching more boats than they’re allowed,” Ashworth said. “We have monitors out there, and we have seen zero evidence of it. We’ve asked for verification of dates and times, and nobody will actually give us any specifics. A lot of the outfitters are friends, but not all of them are, if you know what I mean.”