Montana is so big and varied, it needs dual reports.
“Data on last year’s pheasant harvest numbers is not yet available,” reports Ken Plourde, Habitat Specialist, with the Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Region 6. “However, reports from hunters during and after the season indicated mixed results. Some folks struggled while others did quite well.”
“Changes in habitat distribution – CRP – seem especially to have affected many long-time hunters,” says Plourde, “as some traditional pheasant hunting areas are not as good as in the past.”
“Early winter (December and January) in the northeast corner of Montana was moderate and had more snow and cold days than several of the past years,” says Plourde. “These conditions lifted by February and the remainder of winter was mild. We transitioned to an early spring by March. Pheasant populations largely made it through in good shape due to improving conditions by mid-winter.”
“While early spring had good conditions for nesting, rainfall in many areas of eastern Montana has been at or near record lows each of the last several months,” says Plourde. “Moisture last fall and from winter snowmelt provided good early nesting conditions. Nesting may have started well, but the drought effects have grown more severe since early spring and will affect brood production.”
“Good brood rearing habitat, particularly wet riparian areas, are more critical this year than normal,” says Plourde. “Given that these good habitats are limited, pheasant production this year is expected to be lower than the past few years, at least in the eastern portions of the state.”
“Bird populations in this half of Montana have been good the last several years, and came through winter fairly well,” says Plourde. “Although breeding populations looked good, the drought will undoubtedly have some negative effects on brood rearing success. Given the conditions, bird population outlooks this fall are fair in many areas, and may be poor in others.”
Pheasants Forever’s Fall Hunt Forecast, out in mid-September, will shed more detail when available.
Where to go? “Traditionally the northeastern and central parts of the state (FWP Regions 4 and 6) are the most popular areas for pheasants,” says Plourde, “with many of the best areas along river corridors. Given the drought in eastern Montana this year, hunters may want to look harder at central Montana or other areas where there have been more normal weather conditions.”
“It goes without saying that CRP is the most important program that affects pheasant habitat,” says Plourde, “and the decline in acreage in Montana this fall will likely have significant negative effects on pheasant populations in many areas of the state.”
“Montana is slated to lose about 400,000 acres of CRP this year, roughly 30% of the total CRP left in the state,” concludes Plourde. “There will be some limited new or reenrollments through continuous CRP, as well as some programs aimed at helping producers transfer expiring CRP into grazing land instead of breaking it back into cropland. While these programs will help offset the habitat lost in some local areas, the decline in CRP across the state is going to be tough on bird populations."
“Data on last year’s harvest numbers is not yet available for North Central Montana,” reports Jake Doggett, Upland Game Bird Biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Region 4. “Anecdotal evidence suggests hunter success was comparable to 2015 and higher than the previous two years. Hunters likely bagged good numbers of pheasants, as well as sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge, in 2016.”
“Winter 2016-2017 (November through March) seemed rather typical compared to the previous two years of mild winters here’” says Doggett. “December and January were below average temperature-wise across most of North-Central Montana and as much as 10 degrees colder than average in certain parts of the region.”
“These average temperatures were due to several week-long cold spells where temperatures remained below freezing for up to two weeks at a time,” says Doggett. “Each cold spell was accompanied by several inches of snow, which raised concerns over food availability for pheasants. Pheasants likely suffered some losses but no more than normal over the course of an average winter and expected winter mortality rates.”
“Since harsh weather was restricted to realistically short duration weather patterns, winter survival rates are likely normal across much of the region,” he adds. “Warmer, average temperatures in November, February and March, plus warm chinook winds throughout the entire winter and between cold spells, likely mitigated any extreme negative consequences of extremely cold temperatures in December and January.”
“In North Central Montana, habitat conditions overall are looking good,” says Doggett. “Potential for drought-like conditions looms for late summer and early fall, but spring moisture was adequate through most of June. It was another good grass year for upland birds.”
“April through June weather conditions have been somewhat favorable for upland bird production this spring in North Central Montana,” he says. “Temperatures were slightly higher than normal for April, May and June across most of the region; April received slightly more precipitation.”
“Precipitation all spring long came in the form of numerous light showers with the most rainfall occurring during the time many birds were attempting to lay their first nests. The numerous rainfall events were thought to be impacting nesting efforts at the time. However, coupled with warmer temperatures and the fact that most rainfall events were not severe, the weather overall likely had insignificant impacts on nest success” says Doggett.
“Anecdotal reports suggest peak hatching was a little later than normal in June this spring,” he adds, “with isolated weather events creating irregular outlooks in some areas, as normally occurs in this part of Montana. The month of July has been excessively hot and dry. Time will tell how such weather will impact the hunting outlook early this fall.”
Pheasants Forever’s Fall Hunt Forecast, due out after Labor Day, will dive into those details.
Tom Carpenter is Pheasants Forever's Digital Content Manager.