Prairie Grouse Primer 2023: Montana
MOISTURE HELPS MONTANA GROUSE NUMBERS IMPROVE
By Jack Hutson
To help hunters navigate Montana’s vast prairie grouse country, Pheasants Forever breaks the state down into its three major grouse producing regions. The experts have all weighed in, and here is this season’s outlook for your favorite piece of the Big Sky prairie grouse pie.
REGION 7 / SOUTHEAST
Let’s start with southeastern Montana and its vast sweeps of prairie grouse habitat.
How was the southern Montana winter for sharptails and sage grouse? Sharp-tailed grouse and sage grouse in the region saw varying levels of winter precipitation but, across the board, it was a long one.”
So said Justin Hughes, Region 7’s Upland Game Bird Habitat Specialist (UGBHS) for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP). His winter description continued, “The eastern third of the region experienced large amounts of drifted snow. The good news was that windy conditions cleared snow from large flats and crested buttes for grouse to forage.”
Also based in Miles City as part of the Sage Grouse Initiative, NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) biologist Martin Ellenburg, added this report: “Drifted snow and slick road conditions limited lek surveys this spring but, due to consecutive drought years and poor habitat conditions, it is most likely sage grouse went into the nesting season with below average numbers.”
Both experts agreed that regional prairie grouse fared well considering the winter weather, but - How did spring and the all-important nesting conditions seem to stack up?
“Spring was pretty kind to our upland birds,” reported Hughes. “Winter hung on, which likely pushed back some of the bird’s nesting attempts. The habitat is looking quite good after receiving decent amounts of timely rain showers. The amount of nesting cover and good brood rearing habitat should aid hens in their attempts to hatch and raise their broods.”
Ellenburg agreed: “I have noticed that the sharptails seemed to have responded well in and around the CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) properties I was inspecting earlier this summer. This spring’s improved conditions may have given sage grouse a much-needed boost in the way of better recruitment numbers, as well.”
What can hunters expect this fall? Hughes weighed in: “Overall, I think that things are looking good for prairie grouse going into the fall. The amount cover and forage available on the landscape is the best we have seen in the last handful of years.”
All regional experts mentioned the same “wild card” – grasshoppers! The Montana hopper plague continues across all the regions interviewed.
“Hoppers are a double-edged sword,” says Ellenburg. “They provide much needed protein for poults, but the massive numbers may decimate rangeland habitat.” Hughes agreed. “Although the effects that large swarms of grasshoppers have on farmers and ranchers can be devastating, grasshopper events like we have witnessed the last 3 years have made it pretty easy for broods, and adult grouse alike, to get their bellies full.”
REGION 6 / NORTHEAST
The neighbor to the north of Region 7 had seen slightly improving sharp-tailed grouse numbers in its eastern portions in recent years. What about this year?
“Winter in northeastern Montana was more severe than normal, with more snowfall and lower than average temperatures from early November through late April,” said Ken Plourde, Upland Bird Specialist with Montana FW&P. “On the heels of two years of drought, these conditions were not particularly helpful for bird survival. While these species are adapted to challenging winter conditions, there was likely slightly greater winter mortality than usual in our region for all species of gamebirds.”
Like much of the Columbian sharptail range, lingering winter snow may have affected the spring dance and nesting periods. What did it look like going into the nesting season? Plourde offered this report: “Nesting season was slightly delayed due to the lingering winter conditions in April. The one upside of a long snowy winter was improved moisture conditions, which was also followed by a wetter May and June than the region has seen in several years.”
“Once things got going, lek surveys for sharp-tailed grouse showed the average males per lek dropped slightly from the previous year,” said Plourde. “Lek counts were better in the eastern portions than western portions of our region, which has been the case since 2017.”
According to earlier surveys, sage grouse suffered greater impacts from winter conditions. The average number of males per lek fell 26% from the previous year; 36% below their long-term average for the region.
About going into the nesting cycle and beyond, Plourde shared these observations: “The only concerning effects of weather on nesting and hatching were several cool and wet nights during the critical early brood period of late June and early July. This almost certainly impacted survival of some younger chicks.
Plourde shared his fall outlook: “Conditions since early July have been conducive to brood rearing. Brood observations are just beginning and are only anecdotal so far, but sharptail broods seem slightly smaller than usual.”
Good conditions and another year of grasshopper infestation to grow young grouse may be the combination hunters need for a fair chance at putting grouse in their vest this fall.
According to the Montana FWP’s latest census (2021), Region 6 enjoyed the highest overall percentage of hunter success for sharptails (82%) and sage grouse (57%) of the three regions interviewed.
REGION 4 / NORTH-CENTRAL
Region 4 has arguably suffered the worst of Montana’s seasonal weather conditions, and is due for an improvement. Regional experts may offer some hope.
When asked about winter conditions building up to the spring nesting season, Matt Strauch, the Region 4 UGBHS for Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks turned in this report: “Past years of drought and the harsh winter have taken a toll on upland bird populations in the region. The 2023 regional habitat conditions are looking up compared to that of 2021 & 2022 and, according to the National Weather Service, last winter gave us slightly above average precipitation and slightly below average temperatures.”
Located in the southeastern corner of the region, Pheasant Forever Coordinating Biologist Josh Hobbs added this report: “Snow in some areas covered much of the sage causing (sage) grouse counts to drop several percentage points in most areas of Petroleum and Fergus counties. Sharptails took a hit in this area, as well.”
Hobbs continued, “Untimely rain and hail events may have hurt some early broods and nests but this spring, overall, should have helped with recruitment.”
Strauch offered this observation: “Although grouse numbers are down from the historical average, according to spring lek counts for sharp-tailed grouse and sage grouse, spring and early summer weather conditions have offered some (drought) relief, with above average precipitation and temperatures in May-June.”
“The habitat is there and the nesting conditions were ideal, so the outlook on nest success looks promising for the birds that survived past years of drought and difficult winters,” said Strauch.
“With spring rains comes increased vegetation and fire danger,” warned Hobbs. “There are plenty of dry fuels so be aware and tend to fires appropriately - especially in the field. Use caution with vehicles in tall grass or, better yet, park on the gravel and walk!”
He added this suggestion for improved relations: “Respect public and private lands; thank private landowners for enrolling in Block Management.”
2021 hunter success for Region 4 sharptail hovered around 70% - sage grouse, averaged about 37%.
For sharptails, Ken Plourde of Region 6 advises using technology and boots to locate the habitat that grouse are keying on. He pointed out, “Based on weather and what foods are most prime, they can shift the areas they are using rapidly.”
“The hunting conditions could be pretty tough, as there is a lot of cover on the landscape and food everywhere which sometimes makes patterning birds difficult,” began Justin Hughes of Region 7. “Hunters should look for patterns in habitat; where they are and are not finding birds.”
“My best advice to folks struggling to find birds is to get in the truck and seek areas of varying habitat,” added Hughes. “Hunt through them until you find the kind of habitat they’re using considering prevailing (weather) conditions.”
Also based in Region 7, Martin Ellenburg advises: “Hunters should check National Weather Service data for where positive (or negative) regional weather events had occurred. It will likely be a good place to start planning your hunt.”
Sage grouse inhabit generally drier areas within the region and water sources will be a priority. Plourde suggests looking for patches of green. “Birds will typically be within a half mile of those areas, foraging down in those spots with green vegetation and loafing in better sagebrush stands nearby,” he said.
All the experts agreed that, though perhaps over-stated, truer words hath not been said: “Prairie grouse are — most certainly — boot leather birds.”
MONTANA GROUSE SEASON DETAILS
Sharp-tailed grouse season runs September 1 thru January 1, 2024 with a bag limit of 4 / day and 4 times the daily bag in possession.
Sage grouse season runs September 1 to 30 and the bag limit is 2 per day. Possession limit is two times the daily bag limit.
There is no open season for either species west of the Continental Divide. For firearm restrictions, legal hunting hours and other details, see Montana’s regulations here.
Note: In some areas, Grey (Hungarian) Partridge will share the prairie with grouse and the season coincides with sharp-tails: September 1 thru January 1, 2024 with a daily limit of 8.
Base Hunting License: $10 for residents, $15 for non-residents. Conservation Fee: $4 for residents ages 12-17 and over 62 / $8 Ages 18-61 years. For nonresidents the cost is $10.
Season Upland Game Bird License: Residents pay $7.50 Ages 18 – 61 / $3.75 Ages 12-17*, Senior (62+) or Disabled. For nonresidents the cost runs $55 ages 12-17* / $110 1ges 18 and over. * Ages 10 & 11 may be eligible, see regs for complete information
3-day Upland Game Bird License: $50 for nonresidents. The license is not valid for sage grouse at any time or for ring-necked pheasants during the opening week of season.
Jack Hutson is a reformed (retired) college professor turned gun dog trainer/consultant and vagabond upland bird hunter.