There’s no question about it: Waterfowl hunting is going to be more challenging than usual in Montana this year.
Although May surveys by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service were canceled for the second year in a row because of the pandemic, wildlife biologists know, in large measure, what to expect.
“A lot of the prairie pothole country on both sides of the border is very dry,” said Jim Hansen, Central Flyway migratory bird coordinator for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. This isn’t the Billings-based Hansen’s first rodeo: In January, he celebrated 30 years with FWP, so he has a pretty good handle on what to expect this waterfowl season.
“We had a good number of ducks heading back to breeding grounds last year because we’ve had good production for a couple of years,” Hansen said. “But the number of birds actually hatched will be down quite a bit because of the drought.
“Potholes were drying up, and there weren’t as many places for ducks to settle,” Hansen said. “We’ll still have a good number of birds, but not that many young birds. They’ll be older and more experienced, which means harder to hunt.”
Still, Hansen maintained, “There will be good hunting to be had anyway.”
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He warned that a lot of the wetlands where hunters are used to going will have big mudflats around the edges, making hunting even more challenging.
“Mudflats around the edges make wetlands a lot harder to hunt, in terms of hiding from the ducks, and setting out decoys,” he said. “It’s nice to have some taller vegetation around. It certainly won’t be ideal this year.”
Hansen said populations are likely to vary widely between species of ducks.
“They’re all probably going to suffer some,” he said. “But those that breed in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, like scaup and goldeneye, are going to do a lot better.”
Hansen said goose hunting will the the bright spot again this year.
“Canada goose production is still good,” he said. “They are very adaptable, and don’t depend on small wetlands as much. They can use the bigger lakes and reservoirs.”
He said in a January survey in eastern Montana, scientists saw record numbers of geese.
“Many of them haven’t really left,” he said. “They’ve got wings and they can choose to fly south, but they stayed instead of going to Colorado and Texas. We had mild, snow-free days in December and January. That ended quickly in February, but the geese were in really good shape going into it.”
One group that the FWP was able to survey were the hunters themselves. And as a result of questioning 3,000 randomly selected waterfowl hunters, the agency determined that many really didn’t care for the split season, in which hunting was closed for five weekdays and then reopened in order to provide an extra weekend of hunting.
“A lot of hunters didn’t think the extra weekend was worth the complication,” Hansen said.
As a result, the Pacific Flyway’s split season was canceled, and the agency also did away with the split season in the northern zone (Zone 1) of the Central Flyway. In Zone 2, the split season will remain.
Montana is split roughly in half by the two flyways. The Pacific Flyway includes Hill, Chouteau, Cascade, Meagher and Park counties and all counties lying west of these.
In the Central Flyway, Zone 1 (for ducks, coots and geese) includes Blaine, Carter, Daniels, Dawson, Fallon, Fergus, Garfield, Golden Valley, Judith Basin, McCone, Musselshell, Petroleum, Phillips, Powder River, Richland, Roosevelt, Sheridan, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Valley, Wheatland and Wibaux counties. Zone 2 includes Big Horn, Carbon, Custer, Prairie, Rosebud, Treasure and Yellowstone counties.
As in previous years, there’s a special youth waterfowl season the weekend of September 25-26. The regular season begins October 2.
Montana has a variety of regulations on the types and sex of waterfowl that may be taken, as well as differences in regulations between the flyways, so hunters should familiarize themselves with the specific regulations and become proficient with bird identification.