By Tom Carpenter, Editor - Pheasants Forever
Maybe the weather doesn’t quite say autumn is on the way, but the upland hunter’s mind begins to turn just a bit toward autumn – getting the dog out more, shooting a few rounds, patching up those boots and brush pants, placing that ammo order … and dreaming about splendid roosters erupting into a blue autumn sky.
It’s never too early to dream. Or to start planning autumn’s excursions and adventures. That’s why I surveyed key wildlife managers in the ten of the top pheasant states to see what was going on with the birds right now. While the biologists are careful to hold predictions close to their vests until official roadside surveys and the like are in, it’s also far enough along to take an early look.
Read on. Dream on. Start getting ready. Here are regionalized udates from Montana.
“The weather has been generally good for upland bird hatching and chick survival,” reports Ken Plourde, Habitat Specialist with the Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Region 6. “Temperatures have been average with no cold spells, and we have been receiving regular precipitation throughout the spring and early summer.”
“Overall the region is still in a slight drought, though,” he adds, “and the precipitation we have received has not been quite enough to fully ameliorate that. However, the moisture we have received has been consistent enough to create conditions favorable to brood rearing so far.”
“Habitats in northeastern Montana are looking good at this point in the year,” says Plourde. “With the drought last year, some areas that had been extensively hayed last summer were a bit low on cover in the early nesting season, but the consistent rainfall we've been receiving all spring and early summer has really made the habitat pop across the region.”
“There were some very limited places where CRP was newly seeded in the last year or two, and those fields have come in excellent this year,” he adds. “It is important to mention that we did lose a lot of CRP last year, and some of it did get converted back to cropland. While the habitat is in good condition where it is sufficient, there are also areas where habitat loss will reduce any benefits to birds.”
“We had another good Open Fields for Game Bird Hunters enrollment this year in Montana,” says Plourde. “The northeastern part of the state will have a number of new properties that should provide great hunting in addition to all the existing access opportunities available through our Block Management Program and Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program.”
“Several of the new properties, and some that we've enrolled in the previous two years, have recently planted new CRP. Due to the moisture we've received, those fields have been coming in excellent and should raise plenty of birds this summer, so they should also provide some great hunting opportunities this fall.”
“The drought last year did knock pheasant populations back from near-record highs we had seen the previous few years, back to just below our long-term average,” says Plourde. “As long as the weather conditions continue to be conducive to brood rearing another few weeks, I expect bird numbers will improve a fair bit over what we saw last fall.”
“Between CRP loss and the drought last year, hunters should still be prepared for variable bird populations, but in areas of good habitat the hunting should be average to a bit above average in northeastern Montana,” he concludes.
“The weather has been quite good this spring/early summer,” reports Justin Hughes, Upland Gamebird Habitat Specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Region 7. “Temperatures have been mild and we have been receiving precipitation on a regular basis for the past couple months, which has kept our vegetation green and growing well.”
“While some areas of the region have received more precipitation than others,” he says, “the region as a whole looks really good in comparison to the previous two years at this time.”
“The native range and agricultural lands of southeast Montana are doing very well so far this year,” says Hughes. “The mild temperatures and precipitation that the region has been experiencing are not only good for producing grass in the uplands, but also creating very favorable conditions in our riparian areas for hens to raise their broods.”
“The drought conditions in previous years have had a negative impact on many areas of habitat due to lack of vegetation growth and change in intensity of land use because of the pressure farmers and ranchers were experiencing at that time on their operations,” he points out. “While things are looking good now, it is always helpful to note that this is Montana; conditions can change at the drop of a hat.”
“We had another good Open Fields for Game Bird Hunters enrollment this year in Montana,” says Hughes. “Here in the southeast corner of Montana, many landowners have expressed a lot of interest in habitat improvements through our Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program after seeing the conditions that birds experienced as of late due to the drought. Landowners are using the program for a variety of habitat projects that include nest cover seeding, food plots, shelterbelts, and idling important areas of habitat through our Habitat Management Lease program.”
“Drought conditions across the region had a heavy impact on pheasants and partridge this past year,” says Hughes. “Weather and habitat conditions have been quite favorable for birds this spring and early summer. Late July/August brood rearing habitat conditions will dictate how those bird populations will respond.”
“Hunters who come to southeast Montana should find success in bagging birds if they do their homework on access opportunities and habitat conditions prior to arriving in Montana.” He says. “I also urge hunters to have their hunting boots broke in and dogs conditioned; there is a lot of access opportunity in southeast Montana, and hunters who are willing to cover more ground will increase their harvest opportunities.”
“In North-Central Montana, spring and early summer weather has been unique as always,”: says Jake Doggett, Region 4 Upland Game Bird Habitat Specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). “Above average temperatures began just in time for peak breeding season activities. Southern portions of the region received higher than normal precipitation; and there were no widespread reports of damaging hail as often occurs.”
“More precipitation is generally welcome in pheasant country as it translates into better late summer-fall conditions,” says Doggett. “Besides a cool and wet April, things have been looking better for pheasants this year.”
“Habitat is looking very good,” says Doggett. “While last fall ended up becoming very dry, the extra winter snowfall and cold-wet spring replenished soil moisture, allowing vegetation to rebound nicely. Areas with alfalfa look exceptionally well this year, suggesting habitat in the fall will look comparably better than last year.”
“The Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program, which includes Open Fields for Game Bird Hunters, continues to grow in popularity,” says Doggett. <https://myfwp.mt.gov/fwpPub/planahunt>
“Where good year-around habitat occurs, the pheasant outlook is good,” says Doggett. “In areas with lower quality habitat, the outlook is only fair. 2017’s drought, followed by a harsh winter, negatively impacted local populations outside of core areas. The presence of year-around habitat will be key to successful pheasant hunting in North-Central Montana this year.”