Montana pheasant numbers are trending in the right direction after a few challenging years
By Andy Fondrick, Digital Marketing Specialist at Pheasants Forever
All signs indicate that Montana’s pheasant numbers are rebounding after some very difficult conditions over the past few years. Even with the needle moving in the right direction, it will take more than one season to make significant improvement, but it is a good start.
A harsh February put an abrupt end to what had been a mild winter across much of Montana, and while pheasants went into the flurry of snowstorms with great resources surrounding them, the late snow still likely was enough to negatively affect birds at the end of winter. Cool temperatures and moist conditions during the spring also likely pushed the nesting season back a bit. While some areas experienced potentially damaging hailstorms, the brood-rearing conditions were very strong across Montana’s pheasant range after a tremendous summer growing season.
Hunters should have an opportunity to have success in each of the main pheasant regions across Big Sky Country if they are willing to grind through the heavy cover and put some miles on their favorite pair of hunting boots.
North-Central Montana - Region 4
Weather and Conditions
It has been a tough couple of winters for Montana pheasants. After a long and cold 2017-18, it looked as though this year would be relatively warm and dry, until the month of February.
“February was extremely harsh,” says Jake Doggett, upland game bird habitat specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) in Region 4. “Despite the rest of the winter being very mild, the cold snap in February took its toll. Many areas were significantly below the long-term average numbers-wise going into this year’s nesting season.
“April and May were cool and wet,” says Doggett. “Most places received at least one heavy rain and/or a late snowstorm at the end of April which for many locations was enough to delay early nesting efforts, up to several weeks. However, cooler, rainy weather coupled with short warm spells, did create great brood-rearing conditions that lasted well into the summer.”
Habitat, Broods and Counts
With the cool, wet spring, habitat conditions where strong throughout the summer which should help pheasants for a rebound after a few hard winters.
“Perennial cover looks great, the cattails had a good year, and so did the bugs,” Doggett says. “Overall numbers are still considerably below the long-term average, but we are hoping this year is the start of an upward trend for pheasants in north-central Montana. Expect to see young-looking birds this fall.”
According to Doggett, hailstorms likely affected production around Valier, northwest of Conrad, near Belt and north of the Highwoods along the Missouri River. Thunderstorms in the Geraldine area likely have negative impacts as well.
After a few tough winters, Doggett predicts that to find success chasing pheasants in north-central Montana this fall, it will take a lot of time in the fields finding pockets of birds.
“Pheasant hunting will be just as challenging as it was in 2018,” Doggett adds.
“Spend quality time getting to know the area prior to their hunt,” suggests Doggett. “Knocking on doors and getting permission the ‘old-fashioned’ way is still the best way to meet new people and get access to great habitat.”
Northeastern Montana - Region 6
Weather and Conditions
Much like the reports from Region 4, winter was relatively mild in northeast Montana until February hit with heavier snow and colder temperatures than average. Ken Plourde, upland game bird habitat specialist for Montana FWP in Region 6, thinks that mild beginning was key for pheasants being able to survive the late winter surge.
“The mild earlier parts of winter kept birds in good condition going into that tougher February period, so it was not particularly concerning,” says Plourde. “As a result, winter mortality was no worse than average and likely less than average in most of this region.”
After an April snowstorm that may have delayed nesting slightly, Plourde reports that spring conditions were decent overall in the region.
“May was drier than average but starting in mid-June the region began receiving above average precipitation,” says Plourde. “Habitat conditions improved rapidly as chicks were hatching and remained good throughout summer. Eastern parts of the region continued to receive good moisture throughout the rest of summer, while central and western portions of the region had more sporadic rainfall with some areas getting below average precipitation later in July. As a result, habitat and brood rearing conditions may have been better in the eastern portions of the region.”
Habitat, Broods and Counts
When asked about habitat conditions in northeast Montana, Plourde raved about excellent conditions while also mentioning that conditions were good in the western parts of the region as well. He attributes the abundant habitat to the above-average rain throughout the summer
“Due to the good weather this summer, populations are expected to improve across the region, but will still likely remain below long-term average in most areas,” Plourde says, although the past few years leave a gap to make up in population numbers.
“Pheasant populations in northeast Montana are in recovery from the drought of 2017 and resulting low populations through 2018,” Plourde says. “Spring surveys in the eastern and western parts of the region showed populations below average, with pheasant populations in the center of the region slightly above average.”
“Good numbers of broods have been observed in some areas, particularly the parts of the region that are traditionally pheasant strongholds and have the best habitat,” says Plourde. “Larger brood sizes seen in many areas indicates the hatch went well and that our weather was conducive to bird production as expected.”
While Plourde expects pheasant hunting to be improved compared to last season, the numbers may still be lower than what many hunters are used to.
“Pheasant populations in this area are on the upswing but still in the process of recovering from some tough drought years,” says Plourde. “Hunters who set their expectations in line with those conditions and are willing to put in the work to find the best habitats will have the most success.”
“The easternmost counties in the region and areas in the central part of the region along the Milk River are our traditional pheasant strongholds,” says Plourde “All signs point to those being the better areas to find pheasants in northeast Montana this fall. In other areas hunters may still find plenty of birds in pockets of good habitat, but they should expect that it will take more effort to locate those areas.”
“Hunters must be adaptive to both the weather and habitat conditions if they want to find consistent success in northeast Montana this fall,” says Plourde. “If you are not finding birds where you expect to, keep trying different habitats and locations until you find what the birds are really keying in on.”
Southeastern Montana - Region 7
Weather and Conditions
The late season snowstorms hit again here in Region 7, but thanks to very favorable conditions at the beginning of the winter, upland birds were able to weather the storm.
“The winter months were quite mild up until February when conditions became bitter cold and snowy, but birds went into this period in very good shape and came out of winter in good shape,” says Justin Hughes, Region 7 upland game bird habitat specialist with Montana FWP.
As winter turned to spring, the region experienced cooler temperatures and damp conditions.
“Southeast Montana experienced a very wet and cool spring and early summer,” says Hughes. “For the most part the moisture came at the right time for nesting hens, but early nesting attempts were most likely hindered by this cool and wet weather. Brood-rearing conditions were quite favorable due to the high amounts of moisture that the region has continued to receive across the region.”
Habitat, Broods and Counts
According to Hughes, habitat is in great shape across Region 7 and will provide hunters and their dogs with a good workout this fall.
Even with the strong habitat, numbers are still bouncing back from a down 2018 where the pheasant harvest dipped to 47 percent of the ten-year average.
“The entire region is still in recovery mode from the tough drought and winter of 2017,” says Hughes.
“The good news is conditions were slightly better this year than last and could provide us with better numbers of pheasants for hunters to pursue this fall. However, severe weather produced hail that could impact pheasant numbers in a localized areas. Overall, because of low production in 2017 and 2018, pheasant numbers in Region 7 are likely to remain below average this fall.”
Hughes is optimistic that numbers may be higher in some areas than last fall.
“Anecdotally, pheasant numbers are highly variable across the region,” says Hughes. “Hunters should focus on the highest quality habitat available to find consistent numbers of birds.”
While numbers are still recovering, Hughes feels that pheasant hunting in southeast Montana should be somewhat improved from what hunters experienced last year.
“Pheasant hunting is typically more productive in the northeast part of the Region 7 and along the major waterways that run throughout the rest of the region,” says Hughes.
If you are planning on chasing pheasants in southeast Montana this Fall, Hughes number one tip is to be adaptable.
“Hunters will need to be mobile and observant of habitat while hunting across the region,” says Hughes. “There is a lot of habitat out there this year, however birds will still gravitate to areas of highest quality that will provide them with resources they need even in years of marginal habitat quality.”