A rooster here, a grouse there, and a lot of walking between flushes and points. That describes upland bird hunting this year in northeastern Montana.
Declines predicted by biologists based on harsh weather last winter and spring, are being confirmed by hunters who see a relative scarcity of birds.
That's the nature of upland birds in this corner of the state. Populations can explode when habitat and climatic conditions cooperate, and crash when they don’t.
As biologists and seasoned hunters expected, there seem to be good Hungarian partridge and pheasant populations along the western Milk River and through Chouteau, Hill and Blaine counties, and poor populations the farther east you travel along U.S. Highway 2. Sharp-tailed grouse are down across Region 6, and sage grouse are in fair shape wherever you find extensive sagebrush habitat.
"All upland game bird populations in Phillips County are down from last year as we anticipated. It's a case of cause and effect," said Mark Sullivan, wildlife biologist based in Malta. Last spring Sullivan predicted fewer birds for the fall hunt based on last winter's choke-hold in that area.
To the west in Region 6, near Chinook and Havre, bird populations appear to be stable to even slightly higher than last year and enjoyed lush cover, said biologist Al Rosgaard. Still, hunters are having a hard time bagging limits.
"With the good cover available, birds are spread out over the landscape instead of being concentrated in limited habitat. That makes it difficult for hunters to find birds," said Rosgaard.
In extreme northeastern Montana, where pheasant and sharptail numbers were knocked back by one of the snowiest winters on record, hunting success has been further frustrated by a late wheat-growing season. Grain remains standing in thousands of acres across Sheridan and Daniels counties.
"Our bird populations are well below average," said Culbertson-based biologist Scott Thompson. "But hunting is also tougher here due to abundant cover. There’s nothing to congregate birds. Native berry-producing shrubs have no fruit and there is quite a lot of standing crops."
The one factor that may make hunting easier from this point is a dose of fresh snow to aid in tracking. Birds may also concentrate then in woody cover or cattail sloughs.
Hunting for pheasant, wild turkeys, partridge and sharp-tailed grouse extends through Jan. 1 this year.
Mountain grouse season closes Dec. 15 and sage grouse season closes Nov. 1.