BILLINGS - With strong hatches and chick survival over the past two years there should be plenty of upland birds like grouse and pheasants for hunters this fall.
Conditions for nesting and brood survival, however, can vary widely, so don’t be surprised to find hunting really good in one area and not so good just 50 or 100 miles away.
With that in mind, here is a little more detail on what hunters can expect:
Gray (Hungarian) partridge
While no formal surveys are conducted for Huns in Montana, weather and habitat conditions suggest they will range from slightly above to well below average this season. Observations in regions 4 and 7 suggest average numbers. In Region 6 good-sized broods have been observed, so hunters can expect Hun numbers to be solid if nesting conditions were favorable. Summer hailstorms in regions 4 and 6 likely affected bird numbers. In south-central Montana, Region 5 conditions were in flux and bird numbers in most of the region will be below average.
Mountain grouse, which includes ruffed, spruce and dusky (or blue) grouse, are fun to hunt and good to eat. The last few years have been good for these birds in northwestern, western, southwestern and parts of central Montana. Particularly in the north, biologists have been seeing lots of birds and broods. Preliminary information from Region 5 suggests that dusky grouse numbers are better than last year but still below average, and ruffed grouse will be at or slightly above average.
Montana is experiencing a large decline in CRP acreage along the northern tier of the state, which may have an impact on hunting experiences in regions 4 and 6. Based on crow counts and brood sightings in Region 6, numbers vary from below average and slightly down from last year near Havre, to average and the same as last year near Malta and Glasgow, to well above average in the northeast corner of the state.
In good pheasant habitats in central Montana — such as around Conrad and Lewistown — pheasants are "average with an optimistic outlook," according to Region 4 wildlife manager Graham Taylor. Likewise in regions 5, 3 and 7 the season should be average and better than last year.
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In northwestern Montana, brood survival appears to be good on the Ninepipe Wildlife Management Area but drought has hurt habitat so hunting conditions could be tough. Numbers in the Flathead Valley are holding steady.
Sage grouse are another bright spot this year. After declining lek counts between 2008 and 2014, things have picked up, which is consistent with normal population fluctuations and is a result of favorable weather conditions for hatching and brood rearing during 2014 and 2015.
Statewide, male attendance at leks averaged 22.8 males this year, 75 percent higher than last year. Other western states also are reporting increases in lek counts for 2015. This year's counts, however, are still 25 percent below the 30-year long-term average.
Consequently, hunters can expect numbers to be better than last year and near average in areas open to sage grouse hunting. Hunters must check the 2015 upland game bird regulations because parts of south-central, eastern and northern Montana are closed to sage grouse hunting.
Like pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse in Region 6 have been affected by a reduction in CRP acreage, so where CRP ground no longer exists there will likely be fewer birds. In general, however, across the northern part of the state lek counts and other observations show that hunting should be good this fall.
In Region 4 things look good because the past few years have had favorable conditions for production and survival. Region 7 should be about average but spotty depending on local habitat conditions. In Region 5 numbers are likely lower than last year because of low bird populations going into this year's nesting season.
In Region 5 the chukar harvest in 2014 was up 52 percent from 2013, which is good news. For this year, chukar numbers remain below average but have some potential for continued improvement.