Pheasant hunting on the Ninepipe Wildlife Management Area near Ronan and surrounding area could be positive compared to previous years. Good grain production and some opportunistic moisture in the spring led to fair conditions. The chicks/brood ratio appears good and the size of the chicks observed indicates a good survival rate.
For waterfowl, drought conditions have plagued northwest Montana through the summer and didn’t help local wetland conditions during nesting and brood rearing season. This could lead to a dip in waterfowl opportunities besides Canada geese, which remain healthy.
Destination: WESTERN MONTANA
Across west-central Montana, hunters should experience an average year for forest grouse and wild turkeys. Despite a long winter, the conditions were still manageable for many game birds to have good winter survival into spring. Spring surveys detected plenty of adult ruffed and dusky grouse, and the spring turkey season showed no shortage of birds. Hunters focusing on dusky grouse should move up in elevation as the season progress.
Abundant precipitation across the region in late spring and early summer led to great growth of grass and forb cover and insect abundance has been good. The region also experienced a bumper crop of serviceberries, huckleberries, choke cherry and mountain ash this season. These conditions have supported average to slightly above average brood sizes and will continue to provide quality forage through autumn.
Due to recent efforts to restore native sharp-tailed grouse to several areas in western Montana, it is possible you could encounter a sharptail while hunting. Be careful to identify birds, as hunting is closed for sharptails west of the Continental Divide in Montana.
Destination: SOUTHWEST MONTANA
Mountain and sage-grouse productivity, as well as partridge productivity, should be decent this year since much of southwest Montana experienced cool, wet weather in June that produced good vegetation and insects but was not cold and snowy to the detriment of hatchlings. There will be wing barrels out in several locations throughout southwest Montana. Hunters are asked to deposit only one wing from each bird harvested into one of these barrels or with the Sheridan or Dillon wildlife biologists’ offices. Wings will be used to determine the age and sex of grouse to determine productivity for the year.
Destination: NORTH-CENTRAL MONTANA
Upland game bird populations are highly dependent on habitat quality, and several years of severe drought coupled with harsh winters had taken a significant toll on upland bird populations in northcentral. But 2023 saw a slightly wetter than average winter, with above- average spring precipitation and temperatures and few severe spring and summer storms.
The combination of these favorable conditions has resulted in ideal habitat conditions, and the outlook for nest success looks promising for those birds lucky enough to survive the difficult conditions of past years. As we move into the fall months and crops are harvested, dry conditions will cause habitat quality to decline, so monitoring weather and habitat conditions will be important when selecting locations this hunting season.
Despite better quality habitat and higher nesting success, sharp-tailed grouse and sage-grouse numbers still remain down from their historical average according to spring lek counts conducted by biologists. Pheasants are surveyed by spring crow-counts, and biologists reported fair to good results in areas of high-quality habitat, but few or no pheasants counted in areas of marginal habitat. Overall, spring surveys show pheasant numbers still remain lower than the historical average across northcentral Montana.
With more good habitat available, but with bird numbers still below long-term averages, hunters can expect to find that birds will be more dispersed throughout the landscape and in lower densities. To be successful, it will be important for hunters to understand the habitat requirements for their target species and seek the best quality habitat they can find.
Sharp-tailed grouse will be found in the grasslands intermixed with farmland and foothills throughout the region, tending to day-roost on the tops of hills and coulees with grass and forb cover typically averaging shin height. On windy days, they prefer to stay on the leeward side of the hill where they can rest out of the wind. Pheasants will generally be closer to riparian areas and farmlands. Finding areas with grass that is knee-high or taller, mixed with shrubs and small draws near a food source (farmland/shrub berries) is a good place to start looking for roosters. Hungarian partridge thrive in all the above habitats but are more susceptible to extreme weather and larger fluctuations in their numbers. Large patches of grass and CRP with draws or fields and shrubby cover near farmland are good areas to search for Huns.
The term mountain grouse in Montana refers to three different species: the dusky grouse, ruffed grouse and spruce grouse. Of the three, dusky and ruffed grouse make up the majority of the population in northcentral Montana. There is some overlap of habitat with all three species, but generally ruffed grouse tend to occupy riparian areas that have a mixture of shrubs, aspens and conifers in the lower elevations of the mountains. Dusky and spruce grouse tend to occupy areas with a combination of old and new growth conifers with low lying berries in the higher elevations.
So, while better habitat conditions and nesting success are a step in the right direction for upland bird hunters in 2023, it will take more than just one year of favorable conditions in order for upland bird numbers to fully recover, and hunters should temper their expectations somewhat. Contact Matt Strauch, Region 4 upland gamebird habitat specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 406-454-5870, with any questions.
Destination: SOUTH-CENTRAL MONTANA
Upland bird hunting in the region will likely be limited this year. During spring surveys, very few successful broods were observed. Frequent cold spring rains impacted chick hatches for multiple upland species, including Hungarian partridge, pheasant and sharp-tailed and sage-grouse. Though upland birds in some areas were successful in hatching broods, many areas are showing very few young of the year. Turkey brood sizes also appear to be below average. Hunters can expect to see very limited and spotty numbers of upland birds on the prairie this season.
Destination NORTHEAST MONTANA
The combination of the previous summer’s drought and a tough winter appeared to impact upland bird populations coming into the breeding season in some areas, but also brought enough soil moisture to begin recovering the entire region from drought. May and June (the most critical months for game bird production) saw above average rainfall, which fully pulled the region out of drought for the first time since 2020. As a result, habitat conditions during nesting and brood rearing season were good across the region this summer.
Overall bird hunting is expected to be similar to last year in eastern and central portions of the region and improve over last year in the western portions. Bird numbers will likely remain below long-term average for central western Region 6, and above average for the eastern half of the region. Habitat conditions are expected to be good everywhere.
In the far eastern portion of Region 6, pheasant hunters should expect pheasant numbers to remain the same or increase slightly from the previous year, which means they will remain above average.
Hunters should expect pheasant numbers in the Glasgow area to be close to long-term average and about the same as last year, whereas in the Malta and Havre areas, numbers are likely to remain below average this fall.
Based on survey results, the good habitat conditions and biologist observations this summer, it appears sharp-tailed grouse numbers will remain above average this fall for this eastern third of the region. In the Glasgow and Malta areas, sharp-tail numbers may recover and be somewhat average like the previous season.
While weather conditions this summer are likely to improve populations in the Havre area, sharp-tailed grouse hunting in the western portions of Region 6 is likely to remain a bit below average.
In Region 6, Hungarian partridge populations are not monitored through any structured surveys, but harvest estimates show their populations do track with the other bird species in the region to some degree.
In the eastern portion of the region, partridge harvest in the fall of 2022 was well above average for the area and increased substantially over the previous year, reaching a 20-year high. It is expected that numbers will be similar to last hunting season.
Limited habitat causes partridge populations to be relatively low in the central portion of the region. However, based on adjacent areas and recent weather conditions, expect partridge numbers to vary from average to below average. Based on the weather conditions this spring and early summer, it seems likely that partridge hunting in the Havre area will improve but may still be slightly below average.
In both the central and western parts of the region, populations may be spotty and coveys may be challenging to locate consistently.
With the good precipitation received this year, sage-grouse hunting is likely to be average or slightly below average in the Glasgow area this fall, and relatively similar to last season. Habitat conditions will be better, which may cause sage-grouse to be more dispersed across the landscape than last year.
While good precipitation during the nesting and brooding season this year in the Malta and Havre area will aid populations, the recent drought was especially hard, and populations are likely to remain below average, making hunting more difficult and harder to find birds.
Destination: SOUTHEAST MONTANA
The area is coming out of a few tough years of drought, but so far this year the area has received ample moisture across a majority of the region. This has resulted in better grass and forb growth, which has equated to much better habitat conditions compared to previous years. Once again, the region had a lot of grasshoppers, as well. With good habitat and forage options across the landscape, birds will be spread throughout the country, and hunters may have to travel around. This may give the illusion that numbers are worse than they actually are. With the conditions being so good, birds will be able to make a go of it just about anywhere and will not necessarily be in the typical places that hunters would find them on a “normal” year.
There are many areas within the region that experienced severe thunderstorms with torrential rains, hail and high winds. This kind of weather can have very adverse effects on nesting hens and young broods, especially in localized areas. It has been evident from field observations that birds had to initiate second nesting attempts, more than likely a result of these localized weather conditions. Hunters should be prepared to be adaptable in the event that their favorite spot was the recipient of some of this weather.
The good thing about upland birds is that they have a high fecundity and are able to rebound very quickly if given adequate conditions.
2023 Upland game bird seasons
Mountain Grouse Sept. 1–Jan. 1, 2024
Partridge Sept. 1–Jan. 1, 2024
Pheasant Oct. 7–Jan. 1, 2024
Sage Grouse Sept. 1–Sept. 30
Sharp-tailed Grouse Sept. 1–Jan. 1, 2024
- Spring Apr. 15–May 31
- Fall Sept. 1–Jan. 1, 2024