Most of Montana's upland game bird hunting seasons are under way, but many experienced hunters — and their trusty retrievers and pointers — are hoping for good shooting and cooler days ahead.
In most areas of Montana, wing-shooters should find the state rather accommodating with fair to good game bird populations and some pockets of very good hunting.
Montana's upland game bird hunting seasons generally run through Jan. 1. The exception is the sage grouse season, which closes Nov. 1.
Montana's pheasant season opened Saturday and runs through New Year's Day. Here's a look at what upland game bird hunters can expect this season.
• Mountain grouse — dusky, spruce and ruffed — produced average numbers of broods and chicks per brood this spring, but distribution was spotty across the region.
• Pheasant habitat is scarce in this region, and occurs mostly on small parcels where hunting is not allowed.
• Upland game birds came out of the winter with slightly above-average numbers. That's the case with both Hungarian partridge and mountain grouse. Mountain grouse appear to have had good-sized broods, according to area biologists.
• Sharp-tailed grouse numbers have remained about the same, but the region isn't a prime area for sharptails.
• Sage grouse – found mainly in the Dillon area – are up a bit and biologists have noted good survival rates through last winter.
• Pheasant numbers are about average thanks to very little winter mortality. Still, there's not a lot of pheasant hunting in the region due to limited habitat. Most pheasant hunting in southwestern Montana occurs on private land river bottoms.
• With upland game birds, the news is mostly good. Huns and sharp-tailed grouse numbers are average or above average.
• It’s still a little early to predict, but the region's pheasant populations had good breeding, nesting and rearing conditions most of the year.
• Residual grass from an exceptionally wet 2011 made for good nesting and security cover and food availability for sharp-tailed grouse this spring and summer. Spring bird surveys found sharp-tailed grouse in all of their traditional spots as well as places where they are not normally seen. It should be a great year for sharp-tailed grouse hunting.
• Hungarian partridge, which share some habitat with sharp-tailed grouse, apparently have not fared as well in the eastern end of the district – a continuation of a trend noted by biologists over the past two seasons. In the western end of the region, however, biologists have seen large broods of young partridges.
• Mountain grouse numbers should reflect an easy winter and adequate cover. Biologists say both dusky and ruffed grouse numbers should be similar to last year, which was near average.
• Sage grouse numbers throughout the region continue to cause concern, though biologists noted good nesting success this spring thanks to a dry winter and residual vegetation
• Pheasant numbers in south-central Montana should be better than last year, thanks to ample food and cover left over from last year’s wet weather and a relatively warm, dry winter. While pheasant numbers are improving, they still are recovering from the 2011 winter, late rain and floods. Hunters should not expect a bumper year.
• In the Plentywood area, biologists say sharp-tailed grouse numbers are above the long-term average. That's largely attributed to a better-than-expected hatch last year, good nesting cover and a mild winter. In the Havre, Malta and Glasgow areas, sharp-tailed grouse numbers are right around the long-term average. The continuing loss of federal Conservation Reserve Program lands is expected to substantially impact upland bird populations in the future.
• Surveys indicate that sage grouse numbers in Blaine County are expected to be slightly below or near the long-term average based on lek survey data. In southern Phillips and Valley counties, sage grouse lek counts continue to be high and hunters can expect above-average numbers given the mild winter and good rangeland conditions. At this time, however, it's unknown how prevalent West Nile virus was in these areas this summer. Sage grouse have no resistance to WNV, and birds quickly die after contacting this disease from the species of mosquitoes that spread it.
• No formal surveys of Hungarian partridge are conducted in Region 6. Early reports from hunters indicate that Hun numbers are generally good, but spotty, in prime agricultural-interface habitat.
• Hunters should expect pheasant numbers in both Hill and Blaine counties to continue to be down. Survey data indicates that numbers there are well below the long-term average. But a mild winter, combined with the existing good nesting and brood rearing habitat, will likely contribute to numbers being better than last year, particularly in Blaine County. In the Malta area, pheasant surveys were down slightly in comparison to 2011, yet their numbers continue to improve and are still above the long-term average. In the Glasgow area, pheasants appear to have rebounded well, and their numbers are well above their long-term average. Pheasant numbers continue to remain strong in the northeastern corner of the state, and spring surveys indicate they’re well above their 10-year average. Hunters should be aware that it is very difficult to get motel rooms in the Plentywood-Culbertson area due to oil development.
• Last winter was among the mildest on record, so overwinter survival of upland game birds was high. Sharp-tailed grouse production was good with excellent numbers throughout the region; sage grouse should be found in fair numbers; turkey populations are good but still below long-term averages. In general, upland game birds have begun to recover from declines due to several harsh winters. Dry conditions this summer probably enhanced brood survival since young chicks easily succumb to the elements in cold, wet weather. While drought conditions and emergency haying of CRP will take a toll on fall hunting, hunters can nonetheless expect to see more upland game birds this fall compared to the past few years.
• Pheasants look to be in good supply. Overall, spring nesting conditions were favorable, thanks to plentiful moisture in spring-summer 2011, which translated into abundant residual cover for nesting birds this spring.