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Drought hammers upland broods, makes Montana outlook tougher

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Ringneck pheasant

While conditions for upland game bird hunting vary widely across the state, one thing is for sure: The drought has made this year a lot tougher than recent years for birds and hunters alike.

While conditions for upland game bird hunting vary widely across the state, one thing is for sure: The current drought has made this year a lot tougher than recent years for birds and hunters alike.

“What it does is impact chick brood survival,” said FWP wildlife biologist Scott Thompson, who is based in Glasgow. “The birds hatched fine in late May and early June, but young chicks met with dry conditions right away in many areas, and quite a few probably didn’t survive.”

“Already by that time,” Thompson said, “we were seeing some pretty high temperatures and not real good moisture to get that grass cover going. That puts a great amount of stress on the chicks.”

He said that’s true for pretty much all the upland species — pheasant, Hungarian partridge and grouse. He said while sage grouse aren’t as plentiful as sharptails in his region, the far northeast corner of the state, “They do tend to be a little more resilient. We are seeing some broods. But brood survival will still be much less than normal.”

It’s a dramatic contrast from last year, when conditions were much better. “Last year was a pretty good year,” he said. “Sharptails in particular did really well. Hunters had an above-average year.

“This one will be below average.”

But Thompson said many people who come to the region every year will likely still make the trip.

“The hunting won’t be quite the same. But many people know and love the area, and they know they’ll still find some opportunity, and they love to get out and walk the ground and work their dogs.”

He added that many landowners have a lot of concern about fires and the drought has been stressful. “More than ever, we’re reminding hunters to be cautious and aware of the fire danger, and respectful of landowners.”

In Region 4, which takes in much of central Montana and parts of the Hi-Line and, like Region 6, traditionally offers some of the best upland bird opportunity, the situation is similar.

In a brief summary of the year’s prospects prepared for the agency, FWP’s Evan Rodgers, Region 4 upland game bird specialist, said, “Based on overall spring lek attendance for sharp-tailed grouse and crow count surveys for pheasants ... overall numbers are still below the long-term average across the region.”

Still, he added, “Even with the lower-than-average spring precipitation, nesting habitat looked fair to good. There are areas where grasses are still green and grass hoppers are abundant, but with the continued drought conditions, habitat quality may decline in time. Since May the summer has been very hot and dry.

“Water is running low for many and many pastures, simply put, weren’t as productive as they usually are. Taking weather and habitat conditions into consideration overall production and habitat conditions, hunting success is predicted to be below average though very dependent on the hunters’ efforts.”

Rodgers advises hunters: “When choosing a place to hunt, you first need to look at your target species. Sharp-tailed grouse will be in the grasslands intermixed with farmland and foothills throughout Region 4. They will tend to day roost on the tops of hills and draws with grass and forb cover averaging shin height. On windy days they will generally stay on the leeward side of a hill out of the wind. 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. Huns have the ability to thrive in all of the above habitats but are more susceptible to extreme weather.”

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