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2021 upland game bird forecast


Last updated 9/9/2021 at 7:46am

From Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks


Upland bird hunting in northwest Montana for mountain grouse: dusky, ruffed and Franklin’s. Nesting season in Region 1 was dry and unseasonably cool this spring, which likely was favorable for nest success and early hatchling survival across the region. Biologists observed a good number of dusky and ruffed grouse in early summer surveys across the region during breeding season. Although spring conditions were likely good for nesting and hatching, the effect of sustained drought conditions on forb and insect populations, an important food source for young birds, is unknown at this time. Despite this potential impact to survival of birds hatched this spring, biologists continue to see good numbers of grouse broods and expect fall hunting for mountain grouse to be at or above average.

Overall, pheasant numbers should be similar to last year. Birds are available, and biologists are seeing broods of moderate size and age ranges. Ninepipe Wildlife Management Area near Ronan is a popular pheasant hunting spot that spans 4,200 acres. Several WPAs and tribal habitat mitigation sites form a complex of approximately 11,000 acres in the Ninepipe area of similar pheasant hunting opportunities.


Upland bird hunting in Region 2 means grouse: dusky, ruffed and Franklin’s. Biologists saw a good number of adult birds in early summer but have not been seeing many broods. Numbers in the fall will probably be average or below average.


Upland game bird populations are highly dependent upon weather conditions throughout the course of an entire year, and the past year has brought both good and bad conditions for pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse, and gray — Hungarian — partridge in Region 4.

Starting in early fall 2020, the region experienced a couple of snow events that had the potential to reduce the numbers of birds that did not have adequate habitat conditions. In the Great Falls area, October snowstorms dumped 28 inches of snow and temperatures were well below average. The area received a lot of snow in November, but temperatures were slightly above average. The heart of the winter months showed above average temperatures and below average precipitation. December and January were quite mild — warm and dry — but February was quite frigid and snowy.

The spring of 2021 began with a few snow and rain storms, and a few of these storms had the potential to damage nests because of timing and severity. Based on weather station data, late spring and early summer of 2021 showed below average precipitation and above average temperatures across much of the region. But even with the lower than average spring precipitation, nesting habitat looked fair to good in spring.

Based on overall spring lek attendance for sharp-tailed grouse and “crow count” surveys for pheasants, recruitment varied from poor to good depending on location, but overall numbers are still below the long-term average across the region. Based on these surveys, bird numbers going into the nesting season were considered fair overall.

However, since May the summer has been exceptionally hot and dry. The fire season began in late June and farmers and ranchers are presently experiencing disaster-scale conditions. Water is running low for many agricultural producers and pastures are in very poor condition. The total extent to which the heat and drought impacted upland game birds has yet to be fully seen, but anecdotal reports have been poor thus far.

Taking weather and habitat conditions into consideration overall production and habitat conditions, hunting success for upland bird hunters is predicted to be below average this fall, although still very dependent on both the effort of individual hunters and the quality of the habitat that they are hunting.

When choosing a place to hunt, hunters first should look at their 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. Gray partridge have the ability to thrive in all of the above habitats but are more susceptible to extreme weather and experience greater fluctuations in population as a result. As a general rule, large patches of grass and CRP with varying heights and draws or fields with shrubby cover near farmland are good areas to start looking for upland birds in the prairie.

The term mountain grouse in Montana describes one of three species: the dusky grouse, ruffed grouse and Franklin’s grouse. Of the three, dusky and ruffed grouse make up the majority of the population in Region 4. There is habitat overlap with all three species but in general ruffed grouse tend to occupy riparian areas that have a mixture of shrubs, aspens, and conifers in the lower elevations of the mountains. Dusky and Franklin’s grouse tend to occupy areas with a combination of old and new growth conifers with low lying berries in the higher elevations.


Spring “crowing count” surveys suggest that pheasant numbers could be similar to last year in south-central Montana. In the Clarks Fork valley, pheasant have been abundant in recent years and spring counts indicate numbers similar to last year. Elsewhere, numbers of pheasants have been below historic averages for the past four or five years. Hunters can expect to see a similar trend this fall. Overall, the number of pheasants available for hunters in south central Montana could hinge on how well this year’s chicks survived summer weather conditions.

Turkey numbers over the winter were below average, but a good spring hatch will mean reasonable hunter opportunity for the fall season.

Broods of gray, or Hungarian, partridges in the southeastern and northern districts of south-central Montana seem to be of average size. And the mountain grouse populations seem to be stable. Elsewhere, grey partridges and mountain grouse sightings are rare to non-existent.

Sage-grouse counts this spring showed numbers of birds at least as good as last year, except in southern Carbon County, where opportunities will be limited.

Destination NORTHEAST Montana

Habitat conditions, spring adult populations and recent brood observations vary widely across the region for all species. Many areas of the region will be challenging to hunt this fall, but some areas of good habitat conditions and fair bird populations remain in limited areas for hunters prepared to find them.

The entire region is in severe drought conditions with a good portion of the area — southern portions of Phillips and Valley counties — in exceptional drought conditions. This has negatively impacted vegetation throughout the season and has likely led to a decrease in nest and brood success of all species.

Due to the drought, increased haying and grazing has occurred in most areas of the region. Severe grasshopper outbreaks in some portions of the region are also reducing the amount of cover available to game birds. In addition, emergency haying and grazing of CRP was authorized this year due to drought conditions. Overall, there is reduced cover in all areas of the region, which will impact the distribution of gamebirds.

From check station and wing barrel data, FWP staff observe that juveniles, or birds hatched that year, typically comprise most of the birds harvested — 60-80 percent depending on the species. With drought conditions, hunters will likely find lower juvenile numbers on the landscape and may have to cover more ground and seek out “good” habitat conditions to be successful.

Pheasant populations in much of the region were steadily increasing after a few years of below-average numbers. Spring “crowing” surveys that measure the rooster pheasant populations in the eastern half of the region showed populations around average or slightly above average, with pheasant populations in the western half of the region near average to below average in the western-most counties.

However, brood success will be low in areas hardest hit by the drought. In the few areas of the region that received some precipitation during early summer, brood success appears fair. The resulting decrease of juvenile birds will mean a lower overall population, and harvest is expected to be down.

Gray, or Hungarian, partridge populations saw similar decreases to pheasants and sharp-tailed grouse due to the drought in 2017 and 2018, and they have been slower to recover. Partridge numbers improved in 2020 but will likely be impacted again by drought this year. Hunters will need to focus on the best habitats to find gray partridge this year.

Based on spring survey data, sage-grouse populations are looking OK in Region 6. In the central and western portion of the region, where sage-grouse habitat exists, adult numbers were near to slightly above average. Core sage-grouse habitat primarily exists south of Highway 2 and is composed of mixed grass and Wyoming big sagebrush rangeland. Drought has likely impacted brood success, especially in areas lacking riparian areas. Hunters should expect to find better numbers of sage-grouse in areas containing some riparian habitat.

Sharp-tailed grouse hunters headed to Region 6 will likely encounter a grouse population that carried over from 2020. Spring surveys showed adult populations ranged from above average in the eastern half of the region to average in the western half of the region. However, due to the severe drought conditions, juvenile numbers will be down in many areas and subsequently decrease overall numbers and harvest. Like pheasants, in the few areas that received precipitation in early summer, sharp-tailed grouse brood success appears average.


Extreme drought, grasshoppers and hot conditions have taken their toll on habitat conditions and upland birds across southeast Montana.

It has been a long, dry spring and summer for agricultural producers and upland game birds alike.

The fall of 2020 provided fair to good bird numbers across most of the region and those birds found a very easy winter with little to no snowfall and limited severe weather.

Spring surveys for upland birds across Region 7 were looking promising. However,

A hot and dry early spring and summer resulted in poor habitat conditions, which may have contributed to poor nesting attempts by upland birds.

Although a drier spring is typically good for nesting upland birds, the spring of 2021resulted in very little grass growth, which negatively impacted the nesting and brood rearing conditions for birds.

Gray, or Hungarian, partridge populations in southeast Montana have been the slowest of the upland birds to rebound from the drought of 2017. The harvest for 2020 showed that numbers are on the rise but still below the long-term average. Gray partridge are considered something of a “bonus bird” in this area as the annual harvest is only about 2,400 partridges. Numbers will be similar to or lower than what they have been the past couple of seasons.

Pheasants continue to be the most popular upland game bird to pursue in southeast Montana. They are the most harvested upland game bird and support the most hunter days. The pheasant harvest last year was near the 10-year average of about 14,000. However, harvest is expected to be down from last year due to unfavorable habitat conditions.

Pheasants require different habitat than other uplands birds here, and with the severe drought even the riparian habitats are dried up and in rough shape habitat-wise. Locating residual grass cover will be key to bagging roosters this fall.

Hunters who want to bag pheasants will need to locate areas of high-quality habitat to be successful.

Sharp-tailed Grouse, the native prairie grouse, is the predominant and most widely distributed upland game bird in the region. Since an historic low of annual harvest in 2018, the 2020 harvest was near the 10-year average of about 14,000 and the stage was set for 2021 to be another good year. 

But rapidly changing conditions had an impact on sharpies as well. Abnormally hot and dry June weather had an extreme effect on the upland prairie habitats found across the region. Hens had a tough nesting season this spring and have considerably fewer chicks than normal. High-quality brood-rearing habitats and residual cover will be the key to finding sharp-tails this fall.

Hunters looking to find sharp-tails will need to hunt harder and walk farther this fall,” he said.

The sage-grouse population continues to be viable across the region and with better habitat (expansive tracts of sagebrush) in the southeastern and northwestern portions of the region. The 2020 harvest was above the 10-year average, which is an indicator of good production. While harvest was up last year, hunter-related mortality does not negatively impact the population trend as there are only about 350 sage-grouse harvested annually across the region.

Sage-grouse lek counts were high this spring and bird numbers looked good. But sage-grouse nesting success was likely affected by the drought, as broods have been smaller than normal.

Hunters should be prepared to be adaptable and ready to change their hunting style and locations based on bird behavior and habitat. Those who are mobile in their tactics and seek out areas of high-quality habitat will have the best success at bagging a sage-grouse this September.


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