Montana’s Hunting Outlook for 2010

The aspens in Montana’s mountain country will be turning golden in a few weeks.

The upland bird hunting seasons opened today at sunrise and the archery deer and elk season will open on Saturday. As we plan early hunting outings, what are the prospects for success?

According to a phone interview with Rick Northrup, upland bird coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in Helena, the overall prospects for bird populations are good for most upland game birds, with some localized exceptions.

Northrup explained that the projections of bird populations are based on a combination of looking at 2009 hunter harvest statistics, adding in data for weather conditions during late spring and early summer when birds are trying to lay and hatch eggs and get the chicks through their first couple weeks. Finally, they add in about 30 years of weather data, hunter harvest data and try to correlate all those statistics into projections for brood survival. He sums up, “We’re trying to be scientific.”

In Region 3, which includes much of southwest Montana, FWP predicts bird populations to be similar to 2009 with the exception of the southern portions of Beaverhead, Madison and Gallatin Counties, which had severe cold and precipitation conditions during the crucial nesting period. Otherwise, hunters should find average bird populations among mountain grouse, sage grouse and Hungarian partridge. The pheasant season doesn’t open until October, but bird populations should be similar to 2009, when the pheasant harvest was slightly above average.

The northwest and northeast corners of Montana are exceptions to the generally optimistic outlook for relatively healthy bird populations. Northwest Montana had severe weather conditions this spring that affected nesting success.

Northeast Montana, a popular destination for pheasant hunters, had a severe winter in 2008-2009. Pheasant hunter success in 2009 was just 41 percent of average and sharp-tailed grouse success was 74 percent of average. The 2009-2010 winter and 2010 spring conditions were better than a year ago, but putting it in sports terminology, this is a rebuilding year.

Some areas of the Rocky Mountain Front had severe weather in late April 2009 that caused pheasant and partridge deaths, and lower fall populations. There should be some improvement in 2010 populations.

While FWP makes projections based on those complex factors, the best idea is to put on those boots and see what’s out there in the areas you like to hunt. That’s what I’m going to do.

In other hunting news, FWP has tentatively sent dates for the waterfowl seasons. In both the Central and Pacific Flyway areas of Montana, duck and goose hunting will begin on October 2. In addition there will be a combined Youth Waterfowl Season and Youth Pheasant Season on September 25 and 26. These special youth seasons are statewide and are to encourage younger hunters to get involved with hunting. Youth are classed as age 11 -15, legally licensed and accompanied by a non-hunting adult age 18 or older.

For archery hunters looking for early season elk, as well as rifle hunters looking ahead to October, Vanna Boccadori, a big game wildlife biologist at the FWP Butte office says, “It’s a good year for elk. We had spring rains and summer rains, the grass is belly-deep all over in our area.

“The calf counts are good, and last year’s spike bulls are raghorns this year. We had good recruitment among this class of elk.”

On the other hand, she reports mule deer numbers are down and “They are generally depressed around Montana—it’s one of those periodic cycles, and it’s reflected in a cut in numbers of B Tags available in Region 3.” She also reports pronghorn antelope numbers are up and for a little variety she mentions, “We’ve had a lot of black bear sightings. People who still have a bear tag left over after the spring season should take it along just in case. And, as usual, whitetail deer are thriving.”

The important thing, as always, is that the hunting seasons start this week. Whether you carry a shotgun or archery equipment, our time, the best time of the year in Montana, is finally here. But don’t forget your fishing rod.