For wild upland birds—pheasants and grouse and such—it's all about the hatch and chick survival.
Well, almost all.
A really bad winter can knock things back for a year or two but generally, if there is a good hatch and good survival among the chicks, especially a few years in a row, there will be great hunting.
Looking back a few years, Montana's seen good hatches and good survival for game birds. So, at a state-wide scale, things should be pretty good for hunters this fall.
Conditions for nesting and brood survival, however, can vary widely so don’t be surprised to find hunting really good in one area and not so good just 50 or 100 miles away.
This is what we call "spotty" in the bird hunting world. A few things to keep in mind this fall:
- Heat + Dogs = Bad. It can often be 80 degrees or more in September and early October, so keep a close eye on your dog to make sure he or she doesn't get overheated. Your dog finds and retrieves your birds, is probably your best friend, and is a tent-mate in camp, so be mindful of your dog. Carry plenty of extra water in the field for the pup to drink and to give your trusty pal a good wetting down, especially about the belly and armpits, when the heat is on.
- And fire! Please understand that it can be hot and dry so use extreme caution and don’t drive in tall, dry vegetation.
For the hunting, here is a little more detail on what hunters can expect:
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, numbers vary from below average and slightly down from last year near Havre, to average and the same as last year near Malta and Glasgow, to well above average in the northeast corner of the state. In good pheasant habitats in central Montana—such as around Conrad and Lewistown—pheasants are "average with an optimistic outlook," according to Region 4 Wildlife Manager Graham Taylor. Likewise in Region 5, 3 and 7, the season should be average and better than last year. In northwestern Montana, brood survival appears to be good on the Ninepipe Wildlife Management Area but drought has impacted habitat so hunting conditions could be tough. Numbers in the Flathead Valley are holding steady.
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. Observations in Regions 4, in the middle of Montana, and Region 7, in southeastern Montana, suggest average numbers. In FWP Region 6, northwestern Montana, good sized broods have been observed so hunters can expect hun numbers to be good given favorable 2015 nesting conditions that further benefited from dry conditions through June that likely improved nest success and brood survival. Summer hail storms in Regions 4 and 6 likely affected bird numbers where storm cells hit resulting in the aforementioned spotty distribution of birds. In southcentral Montana, FWP Region 5, conditions were in flux and bird numbers in most of the region will be below average.
Mountain grouse, a catch all term that includes ruffed, spruce, and dusky (or blue) grouse, are de rigueur for western Montana bird hunters. They 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.
Sage grouse are another bright spot this year in Montana. After declining lek counts between 2008 and 2014 things have really picked up, which is consistent with normal population fluctuations and is a result of favorable weather conditions for hatching and brood rearing during both 2014 and 2015. Statewide, male attendance at leks, or sage-grouse breeding grounds, averaged 22.8 males per lek this year, 75 percent higher than last year. Other western states also are reporting increases in lek counts for 2015. This year's counts, however, are still 25 percent below the 30-year long-term average. Consequently, hunters can expect numbers to be better than last year and near average in areas open to sage-grouse hunting. Hunters must check the 2015 upland game bird regulations because parts of south-central, eastern and northern Montana are closed to sage grouse hunting.
Like pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse in Region 6 have been affected by a reduction in CRP acreage, so where CRP ground no longer exists there will likely be fewer birds. 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. The eastern part of the state in Region 7 should be about average but spotty depending on local habitat conditions. In Region 5, numbers are likely lower than last year due to low numbers of birds going into this year's nesting season.
In Region 5, the chukar harvest in 2014 was up 52 percent from 2013, which is good news. For this year, chukar numbers remain below average but have some potential for continued improvement.
Story by John Vore, FWP Game Management Bureau Chief
Photo courtesy of USFWS