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2018 upland game bird forecast

Hunting

Friday, August 24, 2018

Upland season starts Sept. 1 with mountain, sage and sharptail grouse along with partridge. Pheasant hunting starts Oct. 6. 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 below average this season, depending on the area of the state.

Region 4 has seen good bird numbers in many areas but due to heavy rains and flooding we lost some production. Overall bird number in western parts of R4 are similar to last year.

In Region 5, Hungarian partridge numbers are likely to be below average due to spring storms and the resulting poor hatch.

In Region 6, partridge populations are always “spotty.” Based on incidental observations, partridge populations saw similar decreases to pheasants and sharp-tailed grouse last year. However, the good nesting and brood-rearing conditions should help them recover similarly to the other species. In good habitats the outlook for huns is fair this year, but hunters may need to cover a lot of ground to find habitats favored by the species.

A severe winter across most of the Region 7 most likely had an adverse impact on Hungarian partridges. Although Hungarian partridges occur throughout the region, their distribution tends to be spotty. The most robust populations of Huns 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 fair, depending on localized weather and habitat conditions.

Mountain Grouse

Mountain grouse, including 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 FWP Regions 1 (northwestern Montana), 2 (western Montana), 3 (southwestern Montana) and parts of 4.

In Region 5, Mountain grouse fared better than prairie birds throughout south central Montana this spring. Brood sizes for all mountain grouse species appear to be about average, so hunting opportunity likely will be similar to last year.

Success of broods can vary from year to year, particularly with spring weather. Biologists in northwest Montana have seen good numbers of birds and broods through the summer.

So, if you’re favorite spot had dry weather when grouse were hatching this year, you might see good numbers. If not, it could be a tough season.

The nesting season in western Montana was unusually wet, which may have been hard on hatchlings.

Pheasants

Montana is experiencing a large decline in conservation reserve program acreage along the northern tier of the state, which may have an impact on hunting experiences in Regions 4 and 6. CRP is a program that pays landowners to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species improves environmental health and quality of bird habitat.

In Region 5, pheasant crow counts this spring in the Clarks Fork valley indicated that over-winter survival was not too good. Pheasant harvest will likely be somewhat lower this fall than in past years.

Along the Yellowstone and Musselshell valleys, spring pheasant counts were similar to last year and hunting harvest will be decided by how well young-of-the-year survived spring storms.

In Region 6, pheasant adult numbers, according to spring crowing counts, show quite a bit of variability across the region. The west end of the region, including Hill, Blaine and a portion of Chouteau counties, indicate numbers at 40 to 50 percent below long-term average (LTA) in those areas. Phillips county is above LTA, while Valley and McCone counties are 10 to 24 percent below. The northeast corner, including Daniels, Sheridan, Roosevelt and portions of Richland and Dawson counties, indicate numbers at average to 10 percent below average. Pheasant distribution will vary across portions of each county, and most birds will be found in optimal habitat including river-bottoms, riparian areas and other moist areas that produce adequate cover.

Harsh winter conditions resulted in low overwinter survival. However, peak hatch for pheasants occurs around mid-June, which corresponded with regular, favorable moisture events in Southeast Montana. Overall, pheasant hunting in Region 7 should be fair to poor this fall depending on local conditions. The moisture levels this year have provided birds with vast areas of cover and have also made agricultural lands productive, which will aid birds throughout their lifecycle.

Sage-Grouse

The picture for sage grouse is variable across the state, even within regions. Some leks, or breeding grounds, had good numbers this spring while others did not. Snow that lasted into March and muddy conditions in many areas may not have necessarily affected sage grouse, but it prevented biologists from getting to many leks to count birds. Consequently, we don’t have as good a handle on sage grouse numbers as we usually do. Also, large wildfires in sage grouse core habitat in 2017 will affect bird distribution this year and in the future. Sage grouse numbers naturally fluctuate. After declining lek counts between 2008 and 2014 numbers picked up in 2016, which is consistent with normal population fluctuations and is a result of favorable weather conditions for hatching and brood rearing in 2014 through 2016.

In Region 5, cool, damp weather and hail this spring were tough on the region’s prairie grouse, indicating that harvest opportunity might be somewhat reduced this fall.

Sage grouse counts this past spring were near or lower than long-term averages and below last year. The storms, particularly in the Roundup area, resulted in poor hatches of chicks.

In Region 6, sage grouse lek counts indicate 10-24% below LTA in the western portion of the region, including Hill, Blaine, Phillips, and a portion of Choteau counties. Both Valley and McCone counties indicate numbers that are above LTA. There are no formal surveys of sage grouse in the northeast corner of the region, as numbers are historically very low because of inadequate habitat. Core sage grouse habitat primarily exists south of Highway 2 in mixed grass and Wyoming big sagebrush rangeland. Birds will be distributed sparsely across the expanses of sage brush but may concentrate in certain areas.

Sage grouse experienced fair to good nesting conditions across the southeastern portion of the state. All of the moisture this year created a wonderful mosaic of habitat on the sagebrush grasslands in Region 7. The moisture has brought out a flush of grasses and native forbs that haven’t been as prevalent in the last few years of the drought, which has been beneficial to not only chicks but also to adults. Sage grouse numbers should remain stable due to the favorable habitat conditions.

Sharp-tailed grouse

In Region 5, sharp-tailed grouse numbers are likely to be below average due to spring storms and the resulting poor hatch.

In Region 6, sharp-tailed grouse adult numbers are 25 to 40 percent below the LTA across the region where surveys are conducted. Sharp-tailed grouse distribution may vary dramatically across the region, and the greatest numbers will be found in optimal habitat.

In the central part of the state in Region 4, things look about average.

Similar to sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse found favorable nesting conditions in Region 7. While sharp-tailed grouse are found across the region, localized weather events such as hail storms may have had an impact on some populations. Like other species of game birds, sharptails depend heavily on native and introduced forbs on range and agricultural lands to raise their broods. Hunters who do their homework prior to the season and come with their boots broken in and their dogs conditioned should enjoy success chasing upland birds this season.