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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Montana drops proposed delay for nonresident bird hunters

Sharp-tailed grouse wander through the rows of a field south of Billings in 2021.  (Billings Gazette)
By Brett French Billings Gazette

BILLINGS – Amid concerns of economic impacts and with problems mainly focused in northeastern Montana, the Fish and Wildlife Commission voted against delaying the nonresident upland game bird hunting season by two weeks this fall.

“I have concerns about precedents,” commissioner Brian Cebull, of Billings, said during a Friday online meeting. “I guarantee if we start doing this with hunting seasons and nonresidents, we’re going to be looking at this for big game seasons and everything as well.”

“I am absolutely convinced there is an issue out east,” commissioner Pat Tabor, of Kalispell, said. “I’m concerned about the totality though.”

Tabor wondered why a problem mainly affecting portions of eastern Montana should restrict hunting on forest grouse in western Montana.

The commissioners entertained a proposal to focus the delay just on northeastern Montana’s Region 6 where the problems seem the most extreme.

Brian Wakeling, chief of FWP’s Game Management Bureau, said although northeastern Montana seems particularly hard hit, portions of Region 4 in central Montana and Region 7 in the southeast also experience heavy use. There was also concern that focusing a hunting delay on one area, such as only in Region 6, would simply shift those nonresidents elsewhere.

In the end, restricting the nonhunting delays only to Region 6 for the 2024 season was opposed 5-1 with only commissioner Jeff Burrows, of Hamilton, supporting it.

Dog training

In another amendment, the commission approved delaying nonresident bird dog training by two weeks, moving it back from Aug. 15 to Sept. 1. That’s the same day the upland game bird season opens. Resident bird dog trainers can start as early as Aug. 1.

In addition, the group agreed to require all dog trainers on public land who purchase a training license to disclose the number of dogs they intend to train and any other information the department deems necessary as a way to gather data.

Wakeling said the 300 residents and 110 nonresidents who purchased dog training licenses for the first time last year is probably a minimum.

Some trainers may not have known they were supposed to buy the licenses, he said.

“We don’t doubt that people are definitely taking advantage of the situation and capitalizing on their opportunities,” he said. “Some of this is perception, but we don’t doubt that it’s an issue for the people who are expressing the problem.”

Under questioning, however, Wakeling also noted the department has no information on how dog training prior to the hunting season affects wild birds or hunter success.

“I don’t think you could sell with a straight face that there’s zero impact of running dogs around and training them before the season,” Burrows said. “I don’t think we can say there’s absolutely zero impact and there’s definitely not a beneficial impact.”


These votes came following extensive discussion among the commissioners about how best to address repeated complaints from the public about crowding by nonresident bird hunters and dog trainers, some of which reportedly arrive with trailers full of canines.

It was the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks who in late January proposed the nonresident hunting and dog training delays following repeated complaints from residents in the eastern half of the state, according to director Dustin Temple.

“The issue, at least in a number of people’s minds, is becoming fairly acute,” he said.

The proposals were meant to facilitate discussion, Temple added. So the department delayed a decision on the upland game bird season setting to allow more time for the public to wade in.

Yet complaints also followed the department’s proposals. In addition to many online comments, commission chairwoman Lesley Robinson, of Dodson, said she received several calls from outfitters protesting they had already booked clients for this fall, and the problems seem to apply only to public lands, not private.

That’s why Robinson submitted another proposed amendment to have the nonresident hunting delayed by two weeks only on public land.

Also of concern was the enforceability of a restriction placed only on nonresidents, considering that game wardens are already spread thin.

Legislative action

Although backing away from delaying nonresident upland bird hunters, Tabor said the commission’s discussion did raise the visibility of the problems while also highlighting the difficulties surrounding solving the issue and nonresident dog training concerns.

“Nobody is ignoring this,” he said, but the commission wants to make sure it is doing things correctly to avoid unintended consequences.

Temple predicted the issue will “undoubtedly” come up before the next Legislature. In the past session a bill that would have restricted nonresident hunting was unanimously supported by the Senate but died in the House.

“This is not necessarily a new problem within the last two years, it has been discussed, I guess, for several years,” Robinson said. “It’s just … progressively gotten worse.”