Drought hit habitat and pheasants real hard in Montana. It will take miles – driving and walking – to put some roosters into the air this season.
By Jack Hutson
When you consider hunter numbers, total days hunted and annual harvest, the wily ringneck is far and away the most popular game bird in Montana. In terms of annual harvest, pheasant numbers generally climb above the next three most popular game birds – combined! Nearly a quarter of the total number of uplanders travel to get here, boosting local economies and, hopefully, roosters into Montana’s Big Sky.
Pheasants can be found in all seven of Montana’s game regions. But historically, the three primary regions (7, 6 and 4) in our survey have been among the most productive. Regional pheasant experts give us their answers to the question, “Are there pheasants in Montana’s forecast for this hunting season?”
Region 7 / Southeast
Live, boots on-the-ground, exclusive, early September: The region has been visited by significant rain events during the last weeks of August and first part of September. This summer respite seems to have perked-up dormant vegetation.
During a brief search for sharptails, the dogs and I encountered 9 pheasants in one area of public land south of Miles City. Drenched in just over 2 hours of morning rain, I checked in with Justin Hughes, Game Bird Habitat Specialist at the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks office in Miles City, for more information.
“It’s a perfect storm,” says Hughes. “We’ve lost habitat due to drought and hoppers. Then, commodity prices have gotten so high that CRP fields are transitioning back into production,” was Hughes’ short and long-term outlook.
Only two of the birds I saw were young-of-the-year. The birds that carried over from last year still exist in pockets. It will take good dogs, a strong will and pheasant sense to locate them.
Martin Ellenburg, NRCS Biologist, also of Miles City, pretty much summed-up my experience: “Pheasant hunting is going to be spotty. What we’ve seen is anything that can be grazed or hayed has been. Farmers and ranchers are struggling to scratch-out a living out there.”
What has hunting been like in the past?
“Oh, last fall was great! There were birds anywhere there was cover,” Ellenburg’s enthusiasm momentarily raised. “Now, in places, you could play golf out there and still see the ball a half-mile away.”
Hughes, who enjoys the company of his German shorthair in the uplands, also took a moment to reflect; “Last year we had pheasants where you wouldn’t expect them. We were flushing roosters out of the prairie along with sharpies!”
And this year?
“Public hunting areas may see a sharp decline in (pheasant) numbers due to poor habitat conditions. The better habitat will be closer to riparian zones,” he says. “If you have a favorite spot, you might want to check with someone about the current conditions,” was Ellenburg’s advice.
Hughes postulates, “It depends on your prospective, I guess. If there aren’t many pheasants where you’re coming from, with a little work, you can find some here. If you’ve saved up for a Montana hunt of a lifetime, I’m afraid you may be disappointed.” In that case, wait it out and come another year.
Region 6 / Northeast
"It could be promising,” predicts Heather Brower, a Pheasant Forever, Farm Bill Biologist at the USDA field office in Scobey, MT. “Finding good cover that holds birds will take some legwork but birds are out there,” encourages Brower.
“Challenging,” is the term used by Ken Plourde, Game Bird Habitat Specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. “For those that like limits of birds, this might not be the season for that. But if you like a challenge, birds are out there,” states Plourde. “We had a good year last year; pheasant numbers had climbed back from the drought of 2017. The winter was mild and the carryover promised to build upon the previous season.”
So, what’s it going to be like this season?
“Well, like I said, if you like a challenge, birds are there. Much like reading the water while fly-fishing, hunters are going to have to look for habitat that will hold pheasants. The hunters that can recognize good habitat will do better,” says Plourde. “This year’s reproduction wasn’t strong. There are going to be mostly long-spurred roosters in the bag this season,” Plourde predicts.
For those uplanders that know the late-season game, it sounds very much like that. You may have to put in some miles of marching until you locate birds. Plourde, like Brower, is a bird hunter himself and surmises, “Birds are likely going to be concentrated. Once you locate the cover that holds birds, it’s going to get exciting. All the day’s action could take place in an instant."
What would these folk advise hunters?
“I’ve heard from more bird hunters this year than ever – about double the number, in fact,” reports Plourde. “I tell them with all of the emergency grazing and harvest caused by the drought – then, add swaths of hoppers – hunters are going to have to do their homework for birds.” Add legwork to that equation.
Plourde suggests finding good online resources for the year’s precipitation accumulation. “Look for areas that received some late spring and early summer moisture.”
Brower’s advice to those that wish to reduce their footsteps in the field? “MT FWP’s Hunt By Species and Hunt Planner Map webpages are excellent resources to get your hunt started.”
Region 4 / Central
“Essentially, everything is below average,” lamented Evan Rodgers, Game Bird Habitat Specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks based out of Great Falls. I caught up with Rodgers in his office compiling new and revised habitat project documents along with area closures due to wildfire danger at press-time. “The habitat condition is poor and bird numbers are below the long-term average,” Rodgers summarized.
Weather, again, has been the main culprit. Beginning in the fall of 2020, “poor cover and early snowstorms probably hurt young birds of the year. Late winter’s weeks of zero temperatures compounded survival issues,” reported Rodgers. And then came the drought.
Later in August, central Montana received a much-needed respite of rain. That’s when I was able to discuss conditions with Pheasant Forever Coordinating Biologist, Trenton Heisel. Based in Lewistown, Heisel is an avid participant of wildlife habitat project development in the region. Though primarily dealing with sage grouse, Heisel had recently toured public access areas in the western portion of Region 4.
“Traditionally flowing streams were down to occasional puddles of water,” reported Heisel. “But where there was cover, we saw pheasants,” he continued.
Away from riparian zones, heat and hoppers had reduced grasses to stubble and shriveled fruiting brush. Volunteer workers had been hauling water in an effort to salvage recently planted shelterbelts. The rain and cooler weather may have provided a moment’s rest for transit irrigation efforts, but what of the hoppers?
“It’s tough to say whether pheasants are utilizing hoppers to the extent that they have adequately replaced their need for forbs,” replied Heisel. “However, it’s a short-term fix and winter conditions are bound to have an effect on next year’s bird numbers.”
“It may require a lot of scouting from the vehicle. I’ve put on about a thousand miles of travel in the past few days and had seen, perhaps, a half-dozen broods,” was Rodgers’ insight.
For those with a set of good legs and prime bird dogs, the primary pheasant distribution in Region 4 lies in Toole and Liberty counties, the eastern half of Pondera and Teton counties, the northern half of Cascade and Judith Basin counties. Also included is the western two-thirds of Chouteau along with Fergus and Petroleum counties.
Region 5 / South-Central
Region 5 is not known as "rooster central" in Montana, but it may well be a sleeper where roosters are concerned. Riparian areas and irrigated fields traditionally hold pheasants in fair numbers. Access to good habitat being the key issue in this region. Plenty of smart research and polite door-knocking may yield fair numbers of birds for your vest.
Read Montana FWP's full Upland Gamebird Forecast here.