BILLINGS – There are many facts for people who have birds on the brain contained in Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program Strategic Plan.
For example, did you know there are more ring-necked pheasant shot in northeastern Montana than anywhere else in the state?
Yet statewide, resident pheasant hunter numbers have decreased since peaking in 2006. Nonresident pheasant hunters topped out in 2008. Even with the decline, it is estimated pheasant hunters add about $19.7 million to the state’s economy.
Looking beyond pheasant hunters to other upland bird chasers, since 2012 about one-third of the 350,000 upland bird hunters that take to the fields, prairies and mountains are nonresidents. This figure excludes wild turkey hunters. In their case, since 2017 about 290,000 turkey hunters, 8% of whom are nonresidents, pursued the big birds in the fall and spring.
The upland game bird plan containing these facts, and a lot more, was first written in 2011 and is proposed for an update.
“A decade later, the program is in a new era, one shaped by increased opportunities to collaborate with the agricultural community; redefined, and larger regional focus areas; elimination of the statute requiring UGBEP-funded pen-raised pheasant releases; and functionally operating within a balanced budget,” FWP noted in the plan’s introduction.
By logging on to fwp.mt.gov/aboutfwp/public-comment-opportunities/ugbep-strategic-plan, bird hunters and conservation advocates can learn more about FWP’s plans across the state and provide feedback. The deadline to comment on the updated document is Thursday.
“It’s dense material, but it’s meant to be a guide for program delivery,” said Debbie Hohler, project leader.
Some of the plan’s goals for improving bird habitat include aspen regeneration for forest grouse, establishment of diverse food plots to provide sustenance and cover and the installation of grazing systems so lands are rested to provide hiding cover and shelter for birds.
“We look for ways to be a good fit,” Hohler said. “And still provide a means for a rancher or farmer to make a living.”
For sage grouse, the program has identified about 30 landowners who are paid a rental fee to preserve sagebrush habitat. Landowners are also paid to raise or release pheasants on their property, but participation has dropped to on average about two applications a year. One rule for reimbursement is that the pheasants are not released for “put and take” hunting.
Projects cannot exceed $100,000 in funding without Fish and Wildlife Commission approval. The annual budget for the program is about $750,000, but a recently awarded federal grant added $1.8 million over three years.
“I will put in a plug for our habitat specialists,” Hohler said. “They are the ones … with a great sense of what needs to be done, and they came up with what we call the wildlife-friendly practices with cover crops and rotational grazing.”
Each year, the program publishes a guide to all of the properties involved in habitat improvement projects where hunters are allowed access. Landowner permission is required on some properties, but others are open without notification. The guide can be found online at the UGBEP website.
“We want the landowner comfortable and we offer different ways that hunters can contact the landowner,” Hohler said.
Since 2011, when the first 15-year strategic plan was drafted, Montana has changed in one profound way. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which paid landowners to set aside acreage for wildlife habitat, has dwindled.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at CRP’s peak in 2007 Montana had the second-highest enrollment in the nation at more than 3.48 million acres. By 2015, more than 1.98 million acres had been taken out of the program. In northeastern Montana’s Region 7 alone, more than 1.1 million acres of CRP was lost between 2008 and 2021.
“The advent of CRP in the 1980s enhanced pheasant populations, but the loss of CRP over time has resulted in a likewise but opposite decline,” FWP wrote in its updated draft plan.
With the loss of those lands, Hohler said her program has pivoted to change with the times.
Montana has changed in another way as well, the plan noted: “more and more private land is becoming unavailable for free public hunting opportunities due to increasing amounts of hunting lease agreements.”
“The combination of these factors may have long-term negative consequences for upland bird populations and public hunting access,” FWP noted.
As a result, the agency said it’s important to “protect and enhance large blocks of publicly owned land.” These projects should include native foothill grasslands, FWP said, which provide important habitat for sharp-tailed grouse, gray partridge and ruffed grouse.
It’s interesting to see how Montana’s upland game bird program has changed and evolved over time.
Funding dates back to 1987 when the Legislature set aside money from each bird hunting license to support pheasant enhancement.
“The program was intended to pay for the cost of stocking pheasants and releasing them into suitable habitat,” Chuck Johnson reported for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau.
By 1989, the law was amended to allow unspent money to go toward development, enhancement and conservation of upland game bird habitat.
That didn’t sit well with some folks in Sheridan and Daniels counties who were being paid to raise pheasants for release. They complained FWP wasn’t being careful with its habitat investments and demanded a legislative audit.
A 2000 audit found “inadequate fiscal and management controls, lack of goals and objectives and no standard operating procedures,” Johnson reported.
After the criticism, and probably following the loss of FWP personnel in northeastern Montana, the habitat enhancement portion of the program dwindled. Landowners may have been reluctant to take part because of the requirement that lands enrolled in the program have to be accessible to public hunting.
By 2009, FWP was criticized for not spending the money it had collected from hunters, with $3.2 million in funding sitting in the bank. Another audit was demanded.
“During the audit, FWP officials told investigators that a legally mandated spending cap (of $100,000 per project) prevented them from directing more staffing to the program,” Tom Lutey reported for the Billings Gazette.
As a result, the Legislature lifted the spending cap and created the first upland game bird citizen’s advisory council.
Despite some ups and downs, FWP calculated that 460 habitat projects are active in Montana, conserving and enhancing nearly 350,000 acres of upland game bird habitat while providing nearly 800,000 acres for public bird hunting. Most of the projects were undertaken on private land.