By Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for The Havre Daily News
By the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Montana's rifle antelope and resident pheasant seasons open this weekend, and hunting success should be good, say biologists. But hunters should key in on the best habitats for both species because peripheral populations are lower than the long-term average.
Montana's resident pheasant opener is Saturday. The general season, which includes nonresidents, opens Monday. Both seasons close Dec. 15.
The rifle antelope season opens Sunday and closes Nov. 10. All antelope hunting is by special permit.
Expect good numbers of antelope to the north and east of the Bear Paw Mountains in Blaine County, in southern McCone County and portions of Valley County, but populations are spotty.
"Hunting will be good for those who have permits" in districts 630, 650 and 670, said Pat Gunderson, wildlife biologist for Valley and western McCone counties. "But we're not issuing the numbers of permits we did several years ago. Population increases have been slow."
That trend is echoed by Malta biologist Mark Sullivan, who says antelope populations in southern Phillips County have remained below average due to several years of drought conditions up until this summer. Hunters lucky enough to have drawn an
antelope license in District 620 should have good success, however. In the eastern quarter of Region 6, antelope are distributed in pockets of habitat, said biologist Ray Mule' in Culbertson.
"We have a decent herd in Hunting District 651, but it's a scattered, low-density population with limited hunting access," he said.
If you drew a special antelope permit for districts 690 or 600, expect very good hunting success over much of Blaine County, reports Al Rosgaard, wildlife biologist based in Havre.
"Our antelope are at pretty high levels," Rosgaard said. "We have quite a few animals in northern and southern Blaine County, especially north of the Bear Paw Mountains. South of the mountains, the drought has impacted fawn production, and production is low east of the Bear Paw. But generally, I'm seeing plenty of antelope, and horn growth appears to
be good this year."
If you're in the core riparian habitat of the region, you can expect good pheasant hunting. But if you're in the CRP uplands, bird numbers will likely be below average to average at best.
"Pheasant hunting will be somewhat better than it has been since the fall of 1997, which was a very poor year," Mule' said. "But overall, I expect below average hunting in the very far northeastern portion of the region, such as around Plentywood. Hunting should improve as you move southward toward Sidney, where pheasant numbers are near the long-term average. The hatch looks like it was pretty good, but breeding populations last spring were still below average in most areas, particularly the far northeast. But there are pockets with decent bird numbers throughout the area."
Blame the harsh winters of 1996-97 and 2000 for most of the pheasant decline, but the region's maturing CRP stands are also decreasingly productive for pheasants, say biologists.
"Pheasant hunting will be nothing like the late 1980s and early '90s," Mule' said. "That's largely a result of changing habitat and winter weather. When CRP first went in, there was a lot of kochia and Russian thistle, which have great seed production. The CRP provided both food and cover for pheasants. Combined with a series of mild winters during the same time period, the pheasant population exploded. But over time, most CRP stands have matured into grasses, which provide good bird cover but not great food for pheasants. And recent winters have been harsher, particularly in the northeast, resulting in lowered pheasant numbers."
The maturing CRP stands have, however, improved sharp-tailed grouse habitat in much of the region. "That, and a series of more normal moisture years, are why we are seeing good sharp-tail numbers," Mule' said.
The most productive pheasant habitat now is along the Milk and Missouri rivers and their larger tributaries.
"Along the Milk, pheasants appear to be average to above average," Gunderson said. Farther west, expect decent numbers of older roosters, but fewer young birds, Sullivan added.
"We had some cool rains during the time chicks were hatching, so we didn't have good nesting success," the Malta biologist said. "The core areas of pheasant habitat, mainly along the Milk River, have good numbers of adults, but we have lower numbers in the peripheral habitat due to drought last summer and CRP haying and grazing."
And farther west, Rosgaard expects an average year.
"Guys are going to find them along the irrigated bottomland of the Milk River, and hunting will be better the farther east you go," he said. "Where you find birds, you'll see a lot of young roosters. That's because the earlier nesting attempts were pretty poor, but later hatches seem to have done well."