Mon Aug 01 11:45:00 MDT 2016
Just the thought of wings exploding into flight across the prairie or through the pine forests is enough to get the average upland game bird hunter’s heart racing.
And fortunately from end to end, corner to corner Montana has upland bird opportunities for the casual to the die-hard hunter.
Upland season starts Sept. 1 with mountain, sage and sharptail grouse along with partridge. Pheasant hunting starts Oct. 8. All seasons end Jan. 1, except sage grouse, which ends Sept. 30.
Gray (Hungarian) Partridge
While no formal surveys are conducted for huns in Montana, weather and habitat conditions suggest huns across the state will range from slightly above to well below average this season, depending on the area of the state. Observations in Regions 4, in the middle of Montana suggest average numbers. In FWP Region 6, northeastern Montana, numerous pairs and broods have been observed so hunters can expect hun numbers to be good given favorable 2016 nesting conditions that likely improved nest success and brood survival. Localized summer hail storms in Regions 4 and 6 likely affected bird numbers resulting in the aforementioned spotty distribution of birds. In south-central Montana, FWP Region 5, conditions were in flux and bird numbers in most of the region will be below average.
A series of mild winters the past few years has generally allowed huns to increase in distribution and numbers throughout Region 7. Although Hungarian Partridge occur throughout the region, their distribution tends to be spotty. The most robust populations can be found where there is a good interspersion of grain, alfalfa and rolling grassy hills or grass ways. Hunters can expect numbers of Hungarian Partridge to range from poor to excellent, depending on localized weather and habitat conditions.
Mountain grouse, a catch all term that includes ruffed, spruce, and dusky (or blue) grouse, are fun to hunt and good to eat. The last few years have been good for these birds in Regions 1 (northwestern Montana), 2 (western Montana), 3 (southwestern Montana) and parts of 4. Particularly in northwestern Montana biologists have been seeing lots of birds and broods. Preliminary information from Region 5 suggests that dusky grouse numbers are better than last year but still below average and ruffed grouse will be at or slightly above average.
Montana is experiencing a large decline in CRP acreage along the northern tier of the state, which may have an impact on hunting experiences in Regions 4 and 6. Based on crow counts and brood sightings in Region 6, along with near ideal summer conditions, pheasant numbers continue to be above average, particularly in the northeast corner of the state. In good pheasant habitats in central Montana—such as around Conrad and Lewistown—pheasants are "overall pretty good minus those localized areas hit by weather events," according to Region 4 Wildlife Manager Graham Taylor. Likewise in Region 5 and 3 where the season should be average and better than last year. In Region 1, brood survival appears to be good on the Ninepipe Wildlife Management Area and good moisture through the spring and summer should improve habitat over last year’s dry conditions. Numbers in the Flathead Valley are holding steady.
In Region 7, Mild winter conditions resulted in high over-winter survival. Spring crow counts indicate the population going into nesting season was 20 percent or more above long-term-average. However, peak hatch for pheasants occurs around mid-June, which corresponded with extensive thunderstorm activity in southeastern Montana. Overall, pheasant hunting should be average this fall and comparable to last fall, with the best numbers where storm activity was lowest and cover is best.
Sage grouse are another bright spot this year in Montana. After declining lek counts between 2008 and 2014 numbers have really picked up, which is consistent with normal population fluctuations and is a result of favorable weather conditions for hatching and brood rearing in 2014 through 2016. Statewide, male attendance at leks, or sage-grouse breeding grounds, averaged about 17 percent above the long-term trends. Consequently, the Fish and Wildlife Commission opened sage grouse hunting across the state this year for the month of September, with a daily bag limit of two and possession limit of four.
Like pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse in Region 6 have been affected by a reduction in CRP acreage, meaning with CRP loss, there will likely be fewer birds and hunters will need to be more mobile in some traditional areas. Lek counts indicate birds are still well above average in eastern Region 6 but are below average in the western portion of the region. In general, however, across the northern part of the state lek counts and other observations show that hunting should be good this fall. In the central part of the state in Region 4 things look good because the past few years have had favorable conditions for production and survival. . In Region 5, numbers are likely similar to last year. Again, warmer-than-average March temperatures kicked breeding off early in Region 7. Nesting conditions were favorable. In general, sharp-tailed grouse distribution is fairly even across the southeastern part of the state. Lek counts and other observations show average numbers; overall the sharp-tailed grouse population continues to be robust, providing good hunting opportunities this fall. Hunting should be good this fall, keeping in mind that severe weather events may have negatively impacted populations in localized areas.