Across northeastern Montana, above-average snowfall throughout the winter along with spring rains greatly helped to produce good nesting and brood-rearing cover for upland birds, meaning hunting should be fair or slightly better than 2017.
The upland bird season opens on Sept. 1 for all species except pheasant, which opens on Oct. 6.
Hunters should keep in mind that all populations will be recovering from the drought of 2017, so certain areas across the region are still showing impacts from the drought. Additionally, CRP acreage continues to decline across the Hi-Line. Locating areas of good habitat will be the key to locating birds this fall.
Pheasant adult numbers, according to spring crowing counts, show quite a bit of variability across the region. The west end — including Hill, Blaine, and a portion of Chouteau counties — indicate numbers at 40 to 50 percent below long-term average. Phillips County is above LTA, while Valley and McCone counties are 10 to 24 percent below. The northeast corner — including Daniels, Sheridan, Roosevelt and portions of Richland and Dawson counties — indicate numbers at average to 10 percent below average.
Pheasant distribution will vary across portions of each county, and most birds will be found in optimal habitat including river-bottoms, riparian areas and other moist areas that produce adequate cover.
Sharp-tailed grouse adult numbers are 25 to 40 percent below the LTA across the region where surveys are conducted. Sharptail distribution may vary dramatically, with the greatest numbers found in optimal habitat.
Sage grouse lek counts indicate 10 to 24 percent below LTA in the western portion of the region — including Hill, Blaine, Phillips, and a portion of Choteau counties. Valley and McCone counties indicate numbers that are above LTA. There are no formal surveys of sage grouse in the northeast corner of the region as numbers are historically very low because of inadequate habitat.
Core sage grouse habitat primarily exists south of Highway 2 in mixed grass and Wyoming big sagebrush rangeland. Birds will be distributed sparsely across the expanses of sagebrush, but may concentrate in certain areas.
There are no formal surveys conducted for Hungarian (gray) partridge in Region 6. Partridge populations are always spotty. Based on incidental observations, partridge populations saw similar decreases to pheasants and sharp-tailed grouse last year. However, the good nesting and brood-rearing conditions should help them recover. In good habitats the outlook for Huns is fair, but hunters may need to cover a lot of ground to find the species.
Habitat and access
Open Fields enrollment in Region 6 has added 21 contracts totaling more than 8,000 acres, including 4,606 CRP acres and 3,484 additional acres of access. Thirteen of these contracts are in the northeast corner, six are near Havre, and two are near Hinsdale and Saco. Combined with previous enrollments, the program now offers about 39,000 acres of conserved habitat and access to bird hunters in Region 6.
Interested hunters can find the locations of Open Fields and other UGBHEP projects in the annual Montana Upland Game Bird Guide Enhancement Program Access or through the “hunt planner” on the FWP website.
In addition, the Block Management Access guides, which recently arrived at FWP offices, are another great resource to find places to hunt upland birds.