Drought, untimely rains crimp Montana upland bird crop.


Mar 11, 2001
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Drought, untimely rains crimp Montana upland bird crop.

By BRETT FRENCH, Gazette Outdoor Writer with FWP Reports.

Between the third year of drought, and some untimely spring rains, upland bird numbers took a hit across much of Eastern and Southwestern Montana this year, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials.

The warm winter helped increase survival of adult birds, but when broods hatched this spring, there was a dearth of green forage and insects. Forbs and insects are vital protein sources for young birds.

As a result, John McCarthy, FWP upland game bird manager, said upland game bird hunters heading afield for the Saturday, Sept. 1, opener are likely to find that the hunting has declined somewhat compared to the past couple of years.

“Montana’s drought over the last few years translated into a lack of cover for birds during nesting, a time when the birds seek taller grasses and forbs for nesting cover and raising of their young,” McCarthy said. “To make matters worse, drought relief in some parts of the state came as snow and rain around the peak of the hatch for most species.”

In Region 4, the northcentral portion of Montana, the bird outlook is grim.

“Probably in the last 10 years, this is one of the worst we’ve been looking at,” said Graham Taylor, wildlife manager for FWP.

In Region 6 of northeastern Montana, wildlife manager Harold Wentland said bird numbers are mixed. Areas east of Malta saw more spring moisture, so bird numbers are better there. But the western portion of the region is much drier.

“It’s not a super year, but average,” he said. He predicted average numbers of sharptail and pheasant, with below-average numbers for sage grouse.

Pheasant took a pretty hard hit in the extreme northeast after blizzards locked up winter food sources. Wentland said pheasant were down about 25 percent in the northeast, but wildlife managers expected the die-off to be worse.

In Region 5 of southcentral Montana, Charlie Eustace said reports have been mixed because of the variable moisture. From Custer to Hardin, the wildlife manager said bird numbers look similar to last year. But up north near Roundup, he said range conditions more closely resembled desert than prairie.

“Some fellows by Molt saw some pretty good hatches of Huns,” Eustace said. “They seem to do fairly well in dry conditions.”

Region 5 spring sharptail breeding counts were down about 20 percent, Eustace said. Sage grouse numbers are about the same as last year, he added.

“I suspect a smaller harvest than last year on most of those prairie species,” he said.

As for mountain grouse, Eustace has heard few reports of birds along the Beartooth face. He said untimely snow and rain in June may have killed young birds.

That’s also the report for mountain grouse in southwestern Montana’s Region 3, according to FWP’s Joel Peterson. “Our forecast for birds would be poorer than last year,” he said. “We just haven’t been seeing a lot of birds in the field.”

The opposite is true in Region 7 of Eastern Montana. Above average moisture has helped upland bird populations. The number of birds may be down a bit, said Howard Burt, wildlife biologist, but last year’s numbers were excellent.

“We’re slightly lower in most of those species,” Burt said, especially in the Wibaux and Baker areas where the winter was especially severe.

On a scale of one to 10 – with 10 being very good – most biologists say the bird populations they’re seeing are about a four, five or six, McCarthy said.

Given the dry conditions across the state, hunters would be well advised to call ahead to Block Management lands to ensure they’re open. So far, wildlife managers said they had no reports of closures or hints of upcoming state land shutdowns. But that could change if the fire danger level continues to climb.

Hunters are also reminded that fire restrictions have been enacted on many forest lands that restrict smokers to vehicles and disallow campfires and charcoal fires.

Brett French can be reached at 657-1387, or at french@billingsgazette.com

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