Matt Dickerson: Of bull trout and the ethics of fishing, filming

Vermonters may have seen a story circulating the Internet. It involves Montana Wild, a media company specializing in fly-fishing and hunting films. Many Addison County residents are familiar with their work; it has been featured in the Fly Fishing Film Tour, which has packed the Town Hall Theater every April for the past several years.
On Feb. 18, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks released a statement that three individuals in Montana Wild had been fined a total of nearly $6,000 for violations of 38 state and 11 federal laws pertaining to fishing and filming during their 2013 filming of a feature on bull trout.
This is a story I might not have paid attention to two years ago. But at the end of 2014 I joined the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA). Although the “W” stands for “Writers,” the OWAA also includes photographers and filmmakers. Their bimonthly magazine, website and electronic newsletters keep members informed about important legislation including laws about filming on public lands. This became more relevant to me when my first book related to fly-fishing was published and I began work on a series of four more with a plan to expand content beyond printed words to other forms of web-based media including videos. There were issues I had never thought of. For example, commercial filming is illegal in a congressionally designated wilderness area and on National Forest Service land can only be done by permit.
As an angler, wilderness lover and outdoor writer, I have mixed feelings about these laws. On the one hand I can see the point. Any commercial activity is potentially exploitive — using a person or place or resource for personal monetary gain. In this case it is an exploitation of a potentially fragile area. And it is not difficult to imagine the sort of damage that could be done, for example, by a large movie company making a film on wilderness land. The easiest form of protection is a blanket prohibition.
On the other hand, it seems like I ought to be able to make respectful and non-harmful use of public lands, even if it results in profit for me, as long as I am not “consuming” or damaging the land, or preventing others from enjoying it. And to some degree I can; I can legally write stories and take photographs in designated wilderness lands and then sell them. But not video. Why the distinction? Is pointing a video camera at a river more exploiting than shooting with my DSLR?
There is a significant difference between bringing tractor-trailers full of equipment into the wilderness to make a Hollywood film and having two or three individuals hiking with a pair of video cameras, perhaps practicing a “leave no trace” ethic. The former example does “consume” the resource in multiple ways. I am glad it is banned. Which is perhaps why the law for National Forest Land is more lenient. The permit process allows for case-by-case decisions.
Which brings me back to the Montana Wild story. There were three primary violations behind the fines. They were commercially filming where they were not allowed to do so: in the Bob Marshall Wilderness area. They were fishing for endangered bull trout in waters closed to bull trout fishing and without a “catch card.” And they were alleged to have mishandled those fish. What got them caught was that they were doing this to create a video for the FFFT and showing teasers of the film on their website. This attracted the attention of the authorities. As the MFWP press release spells out, “Further review of the Montana Wild public website showed there was significant evidence of other non-permitted commercial filming activities on National Forest Lands.”
This evidence was enough to get a search warrant, with which authorities seized computers and hard drives containing large quantities of video. That provided conclusive evidence not only that Montana Wild had filmed illegally and had targeted endangered bull trout where it was not permitted, but additionally (according to the press release) “some fish were handled for up to 12 minutes or longer after they were in the net. In one instance a bull trout was caught, netted, handled and released (with the hook still attached) only to be fished again for underwater filming, concluding with the fish being netted, handled and released again.”
Montana Wild has settled with the courts and paid their fine. They also released a statement explaining their actions (www.montana-wild.com/a-statement-from-montana-wild/). Regarding filming where it wasn’t permitted, they claimed to have been misinformed, to have asked a state official whether filming was allowed and to have been told it was. Apparently, they just didn’t ask the department that actually had the authority. I admit sympathy with the perpetrators. Until a year ago, I might not even have known the laws. I might well have taken a video of a fishing trip in National Forest Lands in Vermont and (if I were a better videographer and editor) decided to sell it.
As for illegally targeting bull trout, it is also an easy mistake. Bull trout fishing is allowed in the main stem of the South Fork of Flathead River. They also fished for bull trout in several tributaries, which though not allowed was not explicitly listed as prohibited. They also claimed to have a catch card. The charge wasn’t for not having one, but for “failing to immediately release bull trout; and failing to report a bull trout on the FWP Bull Trout Catch Card.”
The final allegation of mishandling fish was both hardest to prove and hardest to defend. Montana Wild claimed not to have mishandled fish. Video evidence suggests they landed a bull trout, photographed it, released it still 

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