Destination: NORTHWEST MONTANA
Overall, pheasant numbers should be similar to last year. Birds are available, and biologists are seeing broods of moderate size and age ranges. Ninepipe Wildlife Management Area near Ronan is a popular pheasant hunting spot that spans 4,200 acres. Several WPAs and tribal habitat mitigation sites form a complex of approximately 11,000 acres in the Ninepipe area of similar pheasant hunting opportunities.
Destination: NORTH-CENTRAL MONTANA
Based on overall spring lek attendance for sharp-tailed grouse and “crow count” surveys for pheasants, recruitment varied from poor to good depending on location, but overall numbers are still below the long-term average across the region. Based on these surveys, bird numbers going into the nesting season were considered fair overall.
However, since May the summer has been exceptionally hot and dry. The
fire season began in late June and farmers and ranchers are presently
experiencing disaster-scale conditions. Water is running low for many
agricultural producers and pastures are in very poor condition. The
total extent to which the heat and drought impacted upland game birds
has yet to be fully seen, but anecdotal reports have been poor thus far.
Taking weather and habitat conditions into consideration overall
production and habitat conditions, hunting success for upland bird
hunters is predicted to be below average this fall, although still very
dependent on both the effort of individual hunters and the quality of
the habitat that they are hunting.
When choosing a place to hunt, hunters first should look at their target species. Pheasant will generally be closer to riparian areas and farmlands. Cover needs vary, but finding areas with grass higher than your shin, mixed with shrubs and small draws, and near a food source (farmland/shrub berries) is a good place to start.
Destination: SOUTH-CENTRAL MONTANA
Spring “crowing count” surveys suggest that pheasant numbers could be similar to last year in south-central Montana. In the Clarks Fork valley, pheasant have been abundant in recent years and spring counts indicate numbers similar to last year. Elsewhere, numbers of pheasants have been below historic averages for the past four or five years. Hunters can expect to see a similar trend this fall. Overall, the number of pheasants available for hunters in south central Montana could hinge on how well this year’s chicks survived summer weather conditions.
Destination NORTHEAST Montana
Habitat conditions, spring adult populations and recent brood observations vary widely across the region for all species. Many areas of the region will be challenging to hunt this fall, but some areas of good habitat conditions and fair bird populations remain in limited areas for hunters prepared to find them.
The entire region is in severe drought conditions with a good portion of the area (southern portions of Phillips and Valley counties) in exceptional drought conditions. This has negatively impacted vegetation throughout the season and has likely led to a decrease in nest and brood success of all species.
Due to the drought, increased haying and grazing has occurred in most areas of the region. Severe grasshopper outbreaks in some portions of the region are also reducing the amount of cover available to game birds. In addition, emergency haying and grazing of CRP was authorized this year due to drought conditions. Overall, there is reduced cover in all areas of the region, which will impact the distribution of gamebirds.
From check station and wing barrel data, FWP staff observe that juveniles (birds hatched that year) typically comprise most of the birds harvested (60-80 percent depending on the species). With drought conditions, hunters will likely find lower juvenile numbers on the landscape and may have to cover more ground and seek out "good" habitat conditions to be successful.
Pheasant populations in much of the region were steadily increasing after a few years of below-average numbers. Spring “crowing” surveys that measure the rooster pheasant populations in the eastern half of the region showed populations around average or slightly above average, with pheasant populations in the western half of the region near average to below average in the western-most counties.
However, brood success will be low in areas hardest hit by the drought. In the few areas of the region that received some precipitation during early summer, brood success appears fair. The resulting decrease of juvenile birds will mean a lower overall population, and harvest is expected to be down.
Destination: SOUTHEAST MONTANA
Extreme drought, grasshoppers and hot conditions have taken their toll on habitat conditions and upland birds across southeast Montana.
It has been a long, dry spring and summer for agricultural producers and upland game birds alike.
The fall of 2020 provided fair to good bird numbers across most of the region and those birds found a very easy winter with little to no snowfall and limited severe weather.
Spring surveys for upland birds across Region 7 were looking promising. However,
A hot and dry early spring and summer resulted in poor habitat conditions, which may have contributed to poor nesting attempts by upland birds.
Although a drier spring is typically good for nesting upland birds, the spring of 2021resulted in very little grass growth, which negatively impacted the nesting and brood rearing conditions for birds.
Pheasants continue to be the most popular upland game bird to pursue in southeast Montana. They are the most harvested upland game bird and support the most hunter days. The pheasant harvest last year was near the 10-year average of about 14,000. However, harvest is expected to be down from last year due to unfavorable habitat conditions.
Pheasants require different habitat than other uplands birds here, and with the severe drought even the riparian habitats are dried up and in rough shape habitat-wise. Locating residual grass cover will be key to bagging roosters this fall.
Hunters who want to bag pheasants will need to locate areas of high-quality habitat to be successful.
Read the full 2021 upland game bird forecast
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