Upland game bird hunters who have been watching the weather won't be surprised that Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks officials expect eastern Montana's pheasant and grouse numbers to be well below average this fall.
In western and central Montana, game bird counts will be similar to or slightly down from last year. Upland game bird hunting begins Sept. 1. Pheasant season opens Oct. 8.
The most severe winter conditions, including prolonged, deep snow, occurred east of a line that ran from north of Shelby to the southeast corner of the state—a vast area. FWP officials said this extreme winter weather followed by a very wet, cold spring significantly reduced the winter survival and spring production of upland game birds.
"Fortunately, western Montana counties avoided some of this extreme weather and hunters should find some upland game bird populations in western Montana that are similar to what they saw last year," said Rick Northrup Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks game bird coordinator.
Northrup said in the western Montana, estimates of ruffed grouse, spruce grouse and pheasant harvests in 2010 ranged from 56 to 79 percent of average.
"In western Montana, gray partridge, dusky grouse, and spruce grouse likely fared better because they nest later in the spring and early summer, after most of the heavy rains came and went," Northrup said.
On the other hand, in eastern Montana pheasants and prairie grouse had a rough time of it.
"In eastern Montana, spring precipitation patterns in many counties suggest that game bird nests were likely inundated and abandoned by late May," said Northrup. Hens with disrupted nests can often times renest if they are not too far along with incubation. This is particularly true for pheasants. Unfortunately, those chicks that may have hatched in late May likely succumbed to the extreme, prolonged moisture and cold.
Northrup said hunters may also be impacted by the loss of lands enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.
"In the past 22 years, Montana has enjoyed a 50-100 percent increase in pheasant harvest, largely as a result of CRP," Northrup said. "Montana still has over 2.7 million acres enrolled, but enrolled lands continue to decline as farms go back into grain production."
Western Montana: (FWP Region 1 and Region 2)
In FWP Region 1, in northwestern Montana, last year's harvest of dusky grouse was about two-thirds of normal. There should be more birds this fall, but populations will remain below average. Ruffed grouse numbers are expected to be well below average due to untimely cold and precipitation. Spruce grouse numbers may also be improved from last year but still below average. Pheasant numbers should show improvement, but remain below average.
In FWP Region 2, in the Missoula area, the dusky grouse harvest in 2010 was 80 percent of average and should be similar this year. FWP expects spruce grouse numbers to improve, but ruffed grouse here too will have been reduced by cold rains in early June. FWP officials say 2010's pheasant harvest was 116 percent of average and hunters can look forward to the potential for a similar or even greater harvest this fall due to the relatively open winter conditions in this region. Officials caution, however, that lands accessible to public pheasant hunting are very limited in this region.
Southwestern and South Central Montana (FWP Region 3 and Region 5)
In southwestern Montana, late May and early June rains were generally less of a factor than in the east. FWP is anticipating average to slightly improved dusky and ruffed grouse numbers. Spruce grouse and gray partridge, later nesters, are not expected to have been impacted by June's early, cold rain. Partridge numbers were 80 percent of average last year and FWP expects them to be near average this year. Spruce grouse, though not prevalent in southwestern Montana, are expected to be above average in number. Also in FWP Region 3, FWP expects sage grouse and pheasant numbers to improve over last year to near average.
FWP Region 5 received extreme rain in late May or early June equaling or exceeding the area's average annual precipitation. Because of their nesting chronology, later nesting birds, including dusky grouse and gray partridge, may have renested, resulting in later hatches in the region. Some improvement in the number of gray partridge and dusky grouse compared to last year is possible, but these populations will remain below average. FWP officials say ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed and sage grouse numbers will likely remain below average too. Pheasant numbers are expected to be below average, similar to last year.
Montana Hi-Line (FWP Region 4 and 6)
In FWP Region 4, dusky and ruffed grouse are not as numerous as they are further west. FWP expects below average populations, down from last year. The gray partridge harvest in FWP Region 4 was 20-50 percent below average last year. Their numbers should show some improvement overall, but will remain below average.
Along the Eastern Front, cold, wet weather in early June likely impacted survival of sharp-tailed grouse broods. In the southern portion of FWP Region 4, numbers may also have been impacted by cold rains at the start of hatch.
FWP expects pheasant numbers in north central Montana to improve some too, but remain below average.
Sage grouse lek surveys suggest sage grouse numbers will remain about 30 percent below average, with some improvement in the southern half of the region compared to the north.
In FWP Region 6 west, gray partridge numbers are expected to be below average following the double-wammy of a severe winter and harsh spring. Sage grouse winter survival was good, but spring losses will likely mean below average numbers of sage grouse. Sharp-tailed grouse faced similar challenges and numbers are expected to be well below average. Pheasant numbers are also expected to be well below average, particularly in areas lacking good winter cover.
In FWP Region 6 east, the weather impacted the survival of all upland game bird species. FWP officials say spring surveys suggest all species of upland game birds were reduced in number, particularly where winter habitat is limited. Spring moisture was extensive but June rains were generally lighter than those experienced further south. As in other areas of eastern Montana, chicks that survived spring had excellent cover and insect production through the remainder of the brood-rearing period.
Southeastern Montana (FWP Region 7 north and Region 7 south)
In FWP Region 7 north overwintering was a challenge for all game bird species. Gray partridge, prairie grouse and pheasant numbers are expected to be down from last year across the board. Sharp-tailed grouse have been relatively abundant for the past four years, but FWP expects fewer sharp-tailed grouse this fall.
In FWP Region 7 south hunters had been enjoying abundant sharp-tailed grouse and gray partridge numbers. However, the line of severe winter weather cut through the northern portion of this area. In addition, prairie grouse were also inundated with record rains for nearly eight days at the end of May, the same moisture system that hit FWP Region 5. This event likely resulted in considerable nest losses. Partridge may have avoided some of these impacts due to later nesting. Pheasant numbers will also likely be down due to winter and spring weather conditions.