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Eastern pheasants flush, but hunt near water

10/12/2006

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PLENTYWOOD, Mont. — Upland bird hunters won't be disappointed with the number of pheasants and grouse in eastern Montana this fall, but to find birds in this parched landscape, focus your efforts around water.

A combination of a gentle winter and timely springtime rains produced a crop of birds — mostly pheasants — that is somewhere between above average and bumper in the best ringneck habitat of northeastern Montana.

But since the hatch, rainfall has been virtually non-existent while temperatures across eastern Montana soared into triple digits last summer.

The dry conditions may have actually benefited birds — especially pheasants and Hungarian partridge — but it has definitely concentrated flocks around available water. And the parched range may also limit access early in Montana's bird season.

Where to go

Generally speaking, the most expansive — and generous — upland bird habitat in northeast Montana ranges from the North Dakota border east of Culbertson and Plentywood west to Scobey and the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

You'll find pockets of birds to the west and south, especially on the Missouri, Milk and Yellowstone rivers and their larger tributaries, but that extreme northeastern corner of the state holds the most consistent pheasant populations and has an abundance of private land enrolled in Fish, Wildlife & Parks' Block Management Program.

Strong production

And this year's bird production has been outstanding, said FWP wildlife biologist Scott Thompson in Culbertson.

"Our spring surveys indicate adult pheasant populations coming out of winter were 18 to 45 percent above the long-term average," said Thompson.

"More specifically, pheasants are 18 percent above the long-term average and 39 percent above last year's survey."

Sharp-tailed grouse are also up, more than 45 percent above the long-term average and 37 percent above last year's decent production.

Biologists don't actively monitor Hungarian partridge populations, but in Thompson's area he said Hun numbers appear to be up, with more and larger broods observed.

Find water, find roosters

This bird-rich corner of the state features true upland habitat unlike many other areas of Montana, where pheasant populations are limited to the riparian habitat of larger rivers and creeks, the northeastern corner is part of the "prairie pothole" terrain.

The sandy soil supports small-grain agriculture, abundant grass and a galaxy of small, shallow ponds, saline seeps and reedy sloughs. There's also a good deal of CRP acreage in this area.

While there are precious few springs, live streams and lakes in the expansive prairie of eastern Montana, you will find birds around the water that's available. That might mean the seep from a cattle water tank or simply a patch of weeds and brush that managed to stay green.

"Birds will likely be using moist habitat due to the hot and dry summer," said Thompson, who surveys Sheridan, Daniels, Roosevelt and parts of McCone and Richland counties.

"These areas typically hold more succulent forage and more insects."

For the best success in the area, hunt places that have the most water. They include the Big Muddy Creek bottom, the Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge and perennial sloughs and wetlands.

One measure of the drought's intensity is that the satellite Waterfowl Production Areas, a series of small prairie potholes along the North Dakota border, are dry this year.

"We didn't see much waterfowl production from those spots, and they won't be the go-to spots for pheasants this year, either," said Jerry Rodriguez, the manager of the Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge (406-789-2305) between Medicine Lake and Froid.

"On the main refuge, though, we should have good pheasant hunting. Our spring production was really good."

Upland bird hunters won't be disappointed with the number of pheasants and grouse in eastern Montana this fall, but to find birds in this parched landscape, focus your efforts around water.

A combination of a gentle winter and timely springtime rains produced a crop of birds — mostly pheasants — that is somewhere between above average and bumper in the best ringneck habitat of northeastern Montana.

But since the hatch, rainfall has been virtually non-existent while temperatures across eastern Montana soared into triple digits last summer.

The dry conditions may have actually benefited birds — especially pheasants and Hungarian partridge — but it has definitely concentrated flocks around available water. And the parched range may also limit access early in Montana's bird season.

Where to go

Generally speaking, the most expansive — and generous — upland bird habitat in northeast Montana ranges from the North Dakota border east of Culbertson and Plentywood west to Scobey and the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

You'll find pockets of birds to the west and south, especially on the Missouri, Milk and Yellowstone rivers and their larger tributaries, but that extreme northeastern corner of the state holds the most consistent pheasant populations and has an abundance of private land enrolled in Fish, Wildlife & Parks' Block Management Program.

Strong production

And this year's bird production has been outstanding, said FWP wildlife biologist Scott Thompson in Culbertson.

"Our spring surveys indicate adult pheasant populations coming out of winter were 18 to 45 percent above the long-term average," said Thompson.

"More specifically, pheasants are 18 percent above the long-term average and 39 percent above last year's survey."

Sharp-tailed grouse are also up, more than 45 percent above the long-term average and 37 percent above last year's decent production. Biologists don't actively monitor Hungarian partridge populations, but in Thompson's area he said Hun numbers appear to be up, with more and larger broods observed.

Find water, find roosters

This bird-rich corner of the state features true upland habitat unlike many other areas of Montana, where pheasant populations are limited to the riparian habitat of larger rivers and creeks, the northeastern corner is part of the "prairie pothole" terrain.

The sandy soil supports small-grain agriculture, abundant grass and a galaxy of small, shallow ponds, saline seeps and reedy sloughs. There's also a good deal of CRP acreage in this area.

While there are precious few springs, live streams and lakes in the expansive prairie of eastern Montana, you will find birds around the water that's available. That might mean the seep from a cattle water tank or simply a patch of weeds and brush that managed to stay green.

"Birds will likely be using moist habitat due to the hot and dry summer," said Thompson, who surveys Sheridan, Daniels, Roosevelt and parts of McCone and Richland counties.

"These areas typically hold more succulent forage and more insects."

For the best success in the area, hunt places that have the most water. They include the Big Muddy Creek bottom, the Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge and perennial sloughs and wetlands.

One measure of the drought's intensity is that the satellite Waterfowl Production Areas, a series of small prairie potholes along the North Dakota border, are dry this year.

"We didn't see much waterfowl production from those spots, and they won't be the go-to spots for pheasants this year, either," said Jerry Rodriguez, the manager of the Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge (406-789-2305) between Medicine Lake and Froid.

"On the main refuge, though, we should have good pheasant hunting. Our spring production was really good."

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