There will be some birds to hunt in Montana, but you better be ready to work hard
By Jack Hutson
Montana is a big place, so as usually we are going to cover the prairie grouse prospects region by region.
Region 7 / Southeast
Borrowing from Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times and it was the worst of times…”
That seems to be the consensus when speaking to central and eastern Montana’s prairie grouse experts. Overall, eastern Montana experienced a relatively mild winter that carried into spring and, with it, improved numbers of potentially nesting grouse. However, subsequent and prevailing conditions have stunted nesting and food-producing vegetation. What are hunters to think?
“Oh yeah, our sharptail numbers are up (from previous years) and seem to be getting by,” says Kent Undin, wildlife biologist at the BLM’s Miles City office. “We had an easy winter; there was little concern for winter losses. And that was part of the problem, not a lot of available moisture going into spring,” Undin continues.
This perception was echoed by other biologists when discussing the region’s September 1 to January 1 Montana sharptail season. Martin Ellenburg of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, (NRCS) and Justin Hughes, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks / Region 7, both based in Miles City, have similar observations.
“It’s discouraging,” laments Hughes. “Lek counts were good, we were setting up for a really, really good season.” Hughes considers this drought more extensive than 2017. “Last year’s marginal habitat going into winter has worsened the situation as spring rains failed to show. Spring grasses had remained dormant in several areas. What grass that did appear has been devoured by swarms of hoppers,” says Hughes.
Just how many hoppers are we talking about? Well, in late June the National Weather Service radar based in Glasgow reported a dense cloud-like mass that climbed as high as 10,000 feet! Instead of much needed rain, like the locust of the Biblical narrative, the mass was a devouring hoard of hoppers.
All agreed that sage grouse lek counts were strong to slightly up. Hughes tries to remain optimistic: “Sage grouse are hardy birds, used to arid conditions, and, perhaps, have fared a bit better in the drought. Not edge-cover birds like many other upland species, sage grouse need miles of contiguous sage cover.”
For those interested in locating sage grouse during the month of September, areas of good producing habitat can be found in the northwest and southeastern corners of the region.
Hunters are going to have to be mobile. “Drive the roads and look for green,” says Ellenburg. Hughes agreed and added the proverbial, “It takes boot leather to locate these birds.” To spare hunters as much effort as he can Hughes concludes, “I say this every year, do your homework before coming to Montana."
Region 6 / Northeast
The neighbor to the north of Region 7 also had experienced improving sharp-tailed grouse numbers for the past couple of years. The mild winter offered good carryover and fair nesting conditions in the spring. However, the subsequent drought and poor habitat conditions has had a damaging effect on wildlife. The conflicting situations apparently has uplanders collectively scratching their heads.
“I have heard from more upland bird hunters this year than usual,” says Ken Plourde, Upland Game Bird Habitat Specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks / Region 6. With good hold-over numbers surviving a relatively light winter, there was great expectation. “Lek surveys in the west and central portion of our region had nearly returned to the ten-year average,” Plourde reports.
There were indications that a decent first hatch had taken place but the lack of mid-summer sightings of younger chicks may indicate that a second hatch might have been slim. “With reduced nesting and brood conditions, the late-spring recruitment in the west/central portions (of Region 6) appears to be patchy,” Plourde observes.
Mike Borgreen, Wildlife Biologist at the BLM Field Office in Glasgow, sees similar summer results. “Throughout the brood-rearing season, summer conditions continued to be extremely dry, making the remaining riparian zones even more critical for brood survival. But throughout July and into early August, we are seeing good numbers of broods around the few remaining water sources.”
To further exemplify the ups and downs of the summer season, Borgreen notes: “Throughout most of the HiLine area, especially Phillips County, grasshopper populations expanded as the summer progressed. These grasshopper infestations really impacted the little vegetation that did grow this year. On the bright side, the grasshoppers did provide forage for grouse chicks later in the summer.”
The northeast portion of the region experienced an increase in lek counts and there may have been slightly better brood success. This is primarily due to significant late spring and early summer, rain events passing through that area.
“Fair to poor,” was Plourde’s pronouncement on sage grouse prospects. The central area south of highway 2, between Malta and Glasgow, has excellent sage grouse habitat. South of Glasgow has traditionally been the better of the region’s designated sage grouse core areas. Plourde advises to go online, “The best advice I can offer this year may be using cumulative precipitation maps to locate where any substantial rainfall has occurred. Hunters are going to have to stay mobile and search for pockets of cover that might hold birds”.
September conditions are often dry. Borgreen cautions hunters to “be especially aware of the fire danger and sensitive to landowners concerns over the potential of fires. Be sure to check out Montana’s current fire restrictions and warnings before you go.”
Region 4 / North-Central
Evan Rodgers, Game Bird Habitat Specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks based out of Great Falls, described a very up and down year of weather: “Starting in early fall 2020 we had a couple of snow events that had the potential to reduce the numbers of birds that did not have adequate habitat conditions. In the Great Falls Area, October snowstorms dumped 28 inches of snow and temperatures were quite cold. The area received a lot of snow in November, but temperatures were above average. Like most of eastern Montana, the heart of the winter showed above average temperatures and below average precipitation”.
Rodgers continues “The Spring of 2021 began with a few snow and rain storms, of which a few had the potential to damage nests because of timing and severity. Even with the lower-than-average spring precipitation, nesting habitat looked fair to good."
“Spring lek counts were varied, ranging from slightly down to substantially increased, depending on the location. But overall, the count was up over recent years,” says Andy Oestreich from the BLM’s Lewistown office, reporting on the region’s eastern counties. “Based on these surveys, bird numbers going into the nesting season was fair overall."
So, what can hunters look forward to this fall? “This year’s recruitment should be fair, water is scarce but available within the distance birds are generally willing to travel,” Oestreich predicts. “However, Oestreich continues, weather depending, next year may show the true effects of the drought”.
Rodgers seems to agree that the upcoming season will be below the long-term average and require some effort to locate birds. “Bottom line, it’s dependent on how much effort hunters are willing to put into it,” advises Rodgers. “Taking in weather, habitat conditions and overall production collectively, hunting success is predicted to be below average,” summarizes Rodgers.
Rogers suggests, “When choosing a place to hunt, sharp-tailed grouse will be in grasslands intermixed with farmland and foothills throughout Region 4. Large patches of grass and CRP with varying heights and draws with shrubby cover near farmland are good areas to start looking for these upland birds in Montana’s prairie.”
Both experts believe that sage grouse broods were slightly up early, but dry conditions may have stunted that success. Hoppers are thick this summer, but it remains to be seen if that was enough to offset the lack of good forb and native grass habitat.
Jack Hutson is a converted college professor devoted to family, and training new owners of pointing dogs as well as the dogs themselves. He writes about upland hunting and fly fishing from home in Lewiston, Idaho.