Felt vs. Rubber: Yellowstone revives debate as it considers banning felt soles in park waters

Felt vs. Rubber: Yellowstone revives debate as it considers banning felt soles in park waters

Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle
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By Michael Wright

Anglers are well aware of a universal truth: Rocks are slippery. That’s how we got the invention of felt-soled wading boots, an alternative to rubber soles meant to give anglers better footing while reeling in a lunker.

Felt soles are popular, but they’ve also become a target. Microscopic organisms can hide in the fibrous weave of the sole and hitch a ride to a new river, making the boots a possible vehicle for spreading aquatic invasive species.

Now, a year after the Yellowstone River fish kill and after Montana discovered invasive mussels in some of its waters, Yellowstone National Park is considering banning felt soles.

“That’s one of several things that the park might do,” said Todd Koel, a senior fisheries biologist at Yellowstone.

Koel told the Chronicle in an interview earlier this summer that the park is looking at a number of ways to safeguard its waters from invasives, and that banning felt is definitely an option. A decision is likely to come before the next fishing season, either this fall or early winter.

Koel said the issue is that felt is harder to clean. It’s hard to wash everything out of the sole, and it takes longer for felt to dry. Park biologists switched to using only rubber soles a few years back, and he presented the idea of banning felt for recreational anglers at a series of public meetings earlier this year.

The debate over banning felt is nothing new. Several states require anglers to stick to rubber. Maryland was the first, doing so in early 2011. Alaska, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota and Rhode Island have joined Maryland. The Montana Legislature has considered the idea in the past, but it has never gained traction.

After all the action early in this decade, conversations about banning felt seemed to disappear. Bob Wiltshire, the executive director of the Invasive Species Action Network, said the most recent action he could remember was Vermont repealing its ban in 2016, evidently deciding the benefit wasn’t worth the hassle.

While many agree felt poses a higher risk than rubber, banning felt by itself is not a perfect solution. Invasive species can hitchhike on practically anything, and preventing their spread depends heavily on anglers cleaning their gear.

“A felt-soled boot that has been cleaned represents far less risk than a rubber-soled boot that has not been cleaned,” Wiltshire said.

Wiltshire declined to comment specifically on whether banning felt would make sense for the park, saying he wanted to wait and see what the park actually proposed later this year.

Koel understands that it’s not a perfect fix, but he sees banning felt as a potential piece in a larger effort. Boats are required to pass an inspection before launching in park waters, and the park has a list of recommendations for anglers to follow.

Two of the country’s major river systems begin in the Yellowstone region. Backcountry tributaries in the park’s southern portion feed the Snake while the big name rivers feed the Missouri. Koel said that gives the park a greater responsibility for protecting against the introduction of nuisance species that haven’t already been found within the park.

“Right now we still have an opportunity to prevent a lot of these things from coming,” Koel said. “This is one way we can go about doing that.”