Brutal Montana Winter Means Low Bird Numbers this Fall

Most upland bird hunters will tell you that Montana is on their short list of "gotta do it" wingshooting destinations. Pheasants, huns, sharptails, chukar, sage grouse, the Big Sky state offers something for everyone. But maybe not this year.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department just released its 2011-12 upland bird hunting forecast, and as many expected, last season's brutal winter means bird numbers in many areas will be well below average this fall. In addition, the continued loss of CRP acres means what birds survived will have less cover.

From this release on the MFWP website:
Upland game bird hunters who have been watching the weather won't be surprised that Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks officials expect eastern Montana's pheasant and grouse numbers to be well below average this fall. In western and central Montana, game bird counts will be similar to or slightly down from last year. Upland game bird hunting begins Sept. 1. Pheasant season opens Oct. 8. The most severe winter conditions, including prolonged, deep snow, occurred east of a line that ran from north of Shelby to the southeast corner of the state--a vast area.
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FWP officials said this extreme winter weather followed by a very wet, cold spring significantly reduced the winter survival and spring production of upland game birds. "Fortunately, western Montana counties avoided some of this extreme weather and hunters should find some upland game bird populations in western Montana that are similar to what they saw last year," said Rick Northrup Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks game bird coordinator.

Northrup said in the western Montana, estimates of ruffed grouse, spruce grouse and pheasant harvests in 2010 ranged from 56 to 79 percent of average. "In western Montana, gray partridge, dusky grouse, and spruce grouse likely fared better because they nest later in the spring and early summer, after most of the heavy rains came and went," Northrup said. On the other hand, in eastern Montana pheasants and prairie grouse had a rough time of it.

"In eastern Montana, spring precipitation patterns in many counties suggest that game bird nests were likely inundated and abandoned by late May," said Northrup. Hens with disrupted nests can often times renest if they are not too far along with incubation. This is particularly true for pheasants. Unfortunately, those chicks that may have hatched in late May likely succumbed to the extreme, prolonged moisture and cold.

Northrup said hunters may also be impacted by the loss of lands enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program. "In the past 22 years, Montana has enjoyed a 50-100 percent increase in pheasant harvest, largely as a result of CRP," Northrup said. "Montana still has over 2.7 million acres enrolled, but enrolled lands continue to decline as farms go back into grain production."_

Anyone planning to hunt Montana this year? Will the poor forecast cause you to rethink your plans?