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. 7. All seasons end Jan. 1, except sage grouse, which ends Sept. 30.
It has been extremely dry in most of Montana this summer, particularly in the northern part of the state in Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 6. Although conditions were pretty good earlier for nesting and hatching, the effect of the drought on insect and forb production, important foods for young birds, is unknown at this time, but could lead to poor survival of birds hatched this spring.
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 were observed early on, but the effects of severe drought conditions this summer, which influences forb and insect production important to young birds, is as yet unknown. 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 FWP Regions 1 (northwestern Montana), 2 (western Montana), 3 (southwestern Montana) and parts of 4. 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.
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. However, in parts of southwest Montana the news hasn’t been as good. Broods have been scarce and biologists have seen mostly single birds.
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.
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. Although conditions were good for nesting and hatching, the impacts of the ongoing severe drought on insects and forbs, important foods for young birds, is unknown at this time. In good pheasant habitats in central Montana—such as around Conrad and Lewistown—pheasants are "overall pretty good " according to Region 4 Wildlife Manager Graham Taylor. Likewise, in Region 5 and 3 where the season should be about average. In Region 1, things appear about average on the Ninepipe Wildlife Management Area. Numbers in the Flathead Valley are holding steady.
The number of pheasants surveyed this past spring in the Clarks Fork Valley in southcentral Montana was the highest in recent years. Elsewhere in Region 5, pheasant numbers appear to be similar to last year.
In Region 6, numbers are down a bit around Malta, Glasgow and northeast Montana but still at or above the long-term average. Around Havre numbers are up a bit, but still below their long-term averages.
In Region 7, mild winter conditions resulted in high over-winter survival.
Sage grouse continue to do well in Montana going into summer, although the effects of drought remain to be seen. Also, large wildfires in sage grouse core habitat will affect bird distribution this year and in the future. 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.
Like pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse in Region 6 have been affected by a reduction in CRP acreage and drought, meaning there will likely be fewer birds and hunters will need to be more mobile in some traditional areas. In the central part of the state in Region 4, things look about average. 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.