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Thursday, February 20, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Montana posts 2017 upland bird hunting prospects

Scout, an English setter still in his prime, reminds his hunting group of how much work and pleasure a good bird dog can deliver. (Torsten Kjellstrand)
Scout, an English setter still in his prime, reminds his hunting group of how much work and pleasure a good bird dog can deliver. (Torsten Kjellstrand)

HUNTING -- Generally good upland bird numbers highlight the following Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department prospects report on 2017 hunting seasons for pheasant, grouse and partridge.

Upland bird season starts today, Sept. 1, with mountain, sage and sharptail grouse along with partridge. Pheasant hunting starts Oct. 7. All seasons end Jan. 1, except sage grouse, which ends Sept. 30.

It has been extremely dry in most of Montana this summer, particularly in the northern part of the state in Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 6.  Although conditions were pretty good earlier for nesting and hatching, the effect of the drought on insect and forb production, important foods for young birds, is unknown at this time, but could lead to poor survival of birds hatched this spring.

Gray (Hungarian) Partridge

While no formal surveys are conducted for huns in Montana, weather and habitat conditions suggest huns across the state will range from slightly above to well below average this season, depending on the area of the state. Observations in Regions 4, in the middle of Montana suggest average numbers. In FWP Region 6, northeastern Montana, numerous pairs and broods were observed early on, but the effects of severe drought conditions this summer, which influences forb and insect production important to young birds, is as yet unknown. In south-central Montana, FWP Region 5, conditions were in flux and bird numbers in most of the region will be below average. 

A series of mild winters the past few years has generally allowed huns to increase in distribution and numbers throughout Region 7. Although Hungarian Partridge occur throughout the region, their distribution tends to be spotty. The most robust populations can be found where there is a good interspersion of grain, alfalfa and rolling grassy hills or grass ways.  Hunters can expect numbers of Hungarian Partridge to range from poor to excellent, depending on localized weather and habitat conditions.

Mountain Grouse

Mountain grouse, a catch all term that 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 FWP Regions 1 (northwestern Montana), 2 (western Montana), 3 (southwestern Montana) and parts of 4. 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.

Success of broods can vary from year to year, particularly with spring weather. Biologists in northwest Montana have seen good numbers of birds and broods through the summer. However, in parts of southwest Montana the news hasn’t been as good. Broods have been scarce and biologists have seen mostly single birds.

So, if you’re favorite spot had dry weather when grouse were hatching this year, you might see good numbers. If not, it could be a tough season.


Montana is experiencing a large decline in conservation reserve program acreage along the northern tier of the state, which may have an impact on hunting experiences in Regions 4 and 6.  CRP is a program that pays landowners to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species improves environmental health and quality of bird habitat. Although conditions were good for nesting and hatching, the impacts of the ongoing severe drought on insects and forbs, important foods for young birds, is unknown at this time.  In good pheasant habitats in central Montana—such as around Conrad and Lewistown—pheasants are "overall pretty good " according to Region 4 Wildlife Manager Graham Taylor.  Likewise, in Region 5 and 3 where the season should be about average.  In Region 1, things appear about average on the Ninepipe Wildlife Management Area. Numbers in the Flathead Valley are holding steady. 

The number of pheasants surveyed this past spring in the Clarks Fork Valley in southcentral Montana was the highest in recent years. Elsewhere in Region 5, pheasant numbers appear to be similar to last year.

In Region 6, numbers are down a bit around Malta, Glasgow and northeast Montana but still at or above the long-term average. Around Havre numbers are up a bit, but still below their long-term averages. 

In Region 7, mild winter conditions resulted in high over-winter survival. 


 Sage grouse continue to do well in Montana going into summer, although the effects of drought remain to be seen.  Also, large wildfires in sage grouse core habitat will affect bird distribution this year and in the future. After declining lek counts between 2008 and 2014 numbers picked up in 2016, which is consistent with normal population fluctuations and is a result of favorable weather conditions for hatching and brood rearing in 2014 through 2016.

Sharp-tailed grouse

Like pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse in Region 6 have been affected by a reduction in CRP acreage and drought, meaning there will likely be fewer birds and hunters will need to be more mobile in some traditional areas.  In the central part of the state in Region 4, things look about average.  In Region 5, numbers are likely similar to last year. Again, warmer-than-average March temperatures kicked breeding off early in Region 7. Nesting conditions were favorable. In general, sharp-tailed grouse distribution is fairly even across the southeastern part of the state.  Lek counts and other observations show average numbers; overall the sharp-tailed grouse population continues to be robust, providing good hunting opportunities this fall. Hunting should be good this fall, keeping in mind that severe weather events may have negatively impacted populations in localized areas.


Get familiar with this year’s upland game bird program access guide

Upland bird season kicks off Sept. 1, so it's a good time to dig into this season's hunting access guide

To get started, hunters can refer to the Projects Access Guide, published annually by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program (UGBEP). The guide includes project maps that depict boundaries of private lands enrolled in the UGBEP. Once hunters have obtained the landowner's permission to hunt, the maps with access boundaries can be an invaluable tool for hunters to locate UGBEP project areas.

The UGBEP Projects Access Guide also contains information on habitat enhancement work done on public lands, Open Fields, pheasant release sites, and the method used to obtain permission in order to hunt upland game birds.

Project maps have been created with "georeferenced capabilities," a fancy way of saying hunters can download the maps from the FWP website to most smart phones and tablets. Once loaded on a device, georeferenced maps can allow hunters to dynamically view their position while in the field, relative to important features such as roads and access boundaries.

While no Internet connection or cell phone coverage is required to view the maps, a free third-party app of the user's choice is needed for the maps to kick into georeferenced mode. Go to any online App store and search for "georeferenced PDF viewers". There are several free options available.

Hunters can find the new guide and the maps online at Click Upland Game Bird Access Guide.

Printed access guides are available at FWP headquarters and regional offices. Hunters can also request a copy of the book via FWP's website.

FWP urges Montana hunters to extend their thanks to all partners who collaborate on habitat conservation and access opportunities that benefit wildlife and hunters. These programs, through partnerships formed with private landowners, government agencies, and conservation organizations provide nearly 300,000 acres of enhanced upland game bird habitat while providing close to 600,000 acres of access to upland game bird hunters.

For more information, contact Debbie Hohler at: 406-444-5674, or by e-mail:


Block management information available

For the 2017 hunting season, over 1,300 cooperators s have enrolled about 7.3 million acres in Montana’s Block Management Program.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks program provides hunters with public hunting access to private and isolated public land, free of charge, while assisting landowners in managing hunter impacts.

FWP publishes one statewide Block Management Hunting Access Guide that includes information for all Type 1 and Type 2 Block Management Areas (BMAs) in all seven FWP administrative regions.

While many BMA’s do not require reservations, some do. Hunters can use the Hunting Access Guide to determine how permission is obtained for specific BMAs.

Due to Montana’s extreme fire seasons and dry conditions, some BMAs are currently closed or restricted. With the dry conditions hunters should be prepared for BMA restrictions until the extreme conditions subside. Landowners participating in the Block Management Program can restrict access for fire danger concerns as they feel necessary. For restrictions and closures, go online to

 Additionally, emergency grazing is being allowed in nearly all Montana counties. This allows landowners to graze CRP lands without penalty. This may impact traditional upland gamebird locations.

Additional tools to help hunters plan for hunts on Montana’s 93 million acres of private and public land can be found on line at Click “Hunting,” then view options under “Hunter Access.”


Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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