A Boon for Birds

A Boon for Birds

Eastern Montana offers some of the best and most diverse upland bird hunting in the West - and it's about to get even better.

Author Dave Smith pulls up on a Hun straggler that flushed late out CRP grass after the main covey rise. Photo courtesy of Dave Smith

By Dave Smith

The day started out differently than most of our eastern Montana upland bird hunting mornings. Instead of gulping down coffee on the drive from a base camp out to a Conservation Reserve Program field or stretch of river bottoms, we were sipping coffee with Tim Solberg and Monica Friedrich in their little U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Plentywood, discussing the relationship between the conservation title of the 2002 Farm Bill and habitat for upland game birds.

I had the vague concept that the $17 billion authorized by Congress for conservation programs would make eastern Montana's good bird hunting even better by adding critical habitat on thousands of acres of private farm and ranchlands. Like most hunters, we knew that the Conservation Reserve Program is the backbone of wildlife habitat out here. But how would the major funding increases in other USDA programs - Wetland Reserve Program (WRP), Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) - play out on the ground in terms of pheasants, sharptails and Huns?

This was clearly an idea that needed some ground-truthing, so my hunting partner, Joe Hobbs, and I loaded our Labs into Tim's pickup and the three of us set out for a day of viewing habitat projects with, of course, shotguns over bird dogs.

Tim was born and raised in this country, a farmer with Norwegian roots and a love for the outdoors manifested both in his professional career as an NRCS range conservationist and through his passions for upland bird hunting and walleye fishing. It took me about five minutes to figure out that Tim was one of our own, a government conservationist that also saw his work through the eyes of a hunter. It is clearly more than a job to him.

Our first hunt was along a meandering creek not far from town. NRCS had utilized WHIP funding to help the landowner improve rangeland health and wildlife habitat. Tim pointed out the various habitat improvements on Rom Hedges' land: fencing to allow willow regeneration, restoration of wetland basins, and seeding of cropland back to grass. He also explained how they had released beneficial insects to control leafy spurge, an invasive weed, and re-establish native grasses conducive to good upland game bird recruitment. The project was recently completed, so the vegetation was still a little thin.

An hour later we were back at the truck. The fresh pheasant tracks in the snow indicated that a few wily cockbirds had given us a slip this time, but I can't wait to come back as the project matures.

Our next stop was a Block Management Area a few miles away. We signed in at the booth and then made our way around an impressive CRP field. It was late October, and I'd been through this drill before, unsuccessfully chasing wild roosters through expansive grasslands. But Tim made my day when he explained that he had been working with the landowner on an EQIP project to install a rotational grazing system. The coulee adjacent to the CRP field had an excellent brush component with lots of residual grass cover.

I made a wide sweep with my Labs through the CRP while Joe and Tim hunted a weedy shelterbelt. Cornering a rooster in this quarter-section of grass was not likely, but the dogs were instantly birdy, so I hustled up anyway. Several hens rolled out, then two fantastically wild roosters. Finally, Chinook lined out, went about 100 yards, and then inexplicably button-hooked and flushed a cackling rooster right back at me. I folded it cleanly with a nice crossing shot. As Cheyenne gathered up the rooster, I heard a flurry of shots from Joe and Tim and saw our real plan materialize in dozens of pheasants flushing out of the CRP field and sailing down into the brushy coulee.

The table was set; now it was time to make some hay!

We spread out as we dropped into the deep, wide draw. It was a pheasant hunter's dream: plenty of grass, excellent stands of chokecherry, and even some green ash trees along the creek. We worked the chokecherry, flushing several hens and a couple of roosters just out of range. I split off and followed my increasingly birdy dogs as they doubled back across the creek. Finally, we broke into a grassy clearing and my 10-year old Lab went delirious. A colorful cockbird exploded out of an isolated chokecherry patch, and I crumpled it at the base of the draw.

Joe and Tim had tail feathers poking out their game bags when we caught up again. As we headed back to the truck a large covey of sharptails erupted from the slope of the draw just out of range, cluck-clucking off into the distance.

After lunch, we explored the same creek bottom up the canyon. We stayed in the brushy draw most of the afternoon and added a couple more roosters to the pouch. I got a nice bonus when a covey of Huns exploded from the edge of a wheat field while I was helping Tim locate a downed rooster. The delightful partridge quickly zipped up into the bright blue sky, but I crunched one and Chinook made a nice retrieve down into the coulee.

It was a good day of bird hunting with near limits of pheasants, but even more encouraging was the commitment of these landowners and NRCS - an agency seldom recognized in hunting/wildlife conservation circles - to improve grazing systems and restore wildlife habitat. My questions were resoundingly answered.

FARM BILL/PRIVATE LAND PROGRAMS


Here are the habitat programs designed to substantially increase upland bird populations on private lands. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has technical responsibility for these Farm Bill programs. Visit Montana NRCS online, www.mt.nrcs.usda.gov, for links to county offices.

 

Conservation Reserve Program -- The national acreage cap for CRP has been raised from 36.4 million to 39.2 million acres. Ex

pect large tracts of erosion-susceptible cropland to be converted to grass. CRP county statistics are available online at http://www.fsa.usda.gov/dafp/cepd/crp.htm.

 

Montana Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program -- A subset of CRP, this special $57 million program was recently established to restore 26,000 acres of riparian corridors along the Madison and Missouri rivers.

 

Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program -- Funding authorization was increased from $50 million (1996-2001) to $360 million for 2002-07. Project sites are not available online, but county enrollment data is available at local NRCS offices.

 

Environmental Quality Incentives Program -- This six-year $4.6 billion livestock-oriented program is designed to improve water and soil quality. Annual funding ramps up from this year's $500 million to $1 billion for 2005-07. Expect high enrollment in counties with lots of private rangeland.

 

Wetland Reserve Program -- Authorization allows 250,000 acres per year nationally, but the program has not yet taken hold in eastern Montana.

 

Montana Block Management Program -- The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks administers this program. Visit the MDFWP Web site, http://www.fwp.state.mt.us, for information.

 

Upland Game Bird Habitat Enhancement Program -- Landowners work with the MDFWP to establish and maintain shelterbelts, plant nesting cover and food plots, and to implement grazing management systems. --Dave Smith

 

FARM BILL CONSERVATION PROGRAMS IN MONTANA
While Montana hasn't been swallowed up in the CRP upland bird hunting fanfare of South Dakota and Iowa yet, hardcore upland bird hunters have known for years that the Treasure State holds much more than just big game. Eastern Montana offers some excellent opportunities for pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse, Huns and sage grouse. But here's the little-known kicker: Montana's 3.4 million acres of CRP land ranks second in the nation.

Other conservation programs administered by NRCS, such as the WHIP, EQIP and WRP, received hefty funding increases in the 2002 Farm Bill. These programs offer cost-sharing and/or annual incentives to encourage landowners to install rotational grazing systems, fence out creeks to improve riparian habitat, restore wetlands, establish food plots and shelterbelts, and seed cropland back to grass. The benefits to landowners run the spectrum from increased wildlife and aesthetics to bottom-line values such as improved range health that results in better forage production and calf gains.

Of these activities, the conversion of cropland back into grassland is one that has positive multiplier effects in addition to the simple changing of a habitat that gets disked during the nesting season to one that stays in permanent cover. Landowners typically graze their restored grasslands first, which takes pressure off the native rangeland and can substantially improve recruitment of sharptails and Huns. According to NRCS, this can also increase forage production by as much as 60 percent.

"Farmers and ranchers know they need to look at input costs and returns," says Tim Solberg. "Lots of folks are realizing that seeding marginal cropland back to grass is a sound economic decision."

Knowing that Farm Bill conservation programs may improve bird hunting in eastern Montana is one thing; figuring out how to key in on these improvements for specific species is another matter. Here's a quick summary of some regional hotspots for the four main species of upland game birds - pheasants, sharptails, Huns and sage grouse - and some tips for locating concentration areas for program enrollments.

PHEASANTS
Pheasants are a bird of the river bottoms out here, and are most abundant along the Milk, Missouri, Yellowstone and Musselshell systems. Some of the smaller creeks in the Lewistown area also have tremendous pheasant populations. However, the pheasants widely dispersed in the far eastern portions of the state make use of CRP fields and brushy coulees. Excellent pheasant hunting is available in most years around Plentywood, Culbertson, Sidney and Glendive.

Pheasant habitat is expected to increase significantly in the future as a result of the Montana Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) that seeks to restore riparian habitat within a mile of the Madison and Missouri rivers for the entire 524-mile length of the two rivers in Montana.

Also keep an eye out for WHIP projects that fence out creeks and WRP or WHIP projects that restore wetlands, especially in the high-density pothole country of Sheridan County. Plentywood has long been one of Montana's choice pheasant hunting areas, and the Prairie Pothole Region of northern Montana is Montana NRCS's No. 1 priority for WHIP, which bodes well for the likelihood of more WHIP projects that benefit pheasants in that region.

MONTANA UPLAND BIRD INFO


Most eastern Montana communities are quite accommodating to upland bird hunters. Here are some of my favorites, separated by bird species. All phone numbers are area code 406.

 

Pheasants -- Sherwood Inn, Plentywood, 765-2801; Koski's Motel, Glasgow, 228-8282; Royals Inn, Malta, 654-1150; Yogo Inn, Lewistown, 538-8721.

 

Sharptails -- Best Western Sundowner Inn, Forsyth, 356-2115; Travelers Inn, Circle, 485-3323; Chinook Motor Inn, 357-2248; Sagebrush Inn, Baker, 778-3341; Sherwood Inn, Plentywood, 765-2801.

 

Huns -- Cattle King Motor Inn, Scobey, 487-5332; W-V Motel, Wibaux, 796-2446; El Toro Motel, Havre, 265-5414; Sundown Motel, Stanford, 566-2316.

 

Sage Grouse -- Big Sky Motel, Roundup, 323-2303; Fellman's Hotel, Jordan, 557-2209. -- Dave Smith

 

SHARPTAILS
Sharptails are tied almost exclusively to large tracts of native rangeland. I had a hard time with this at first, because not every section of prairie is loaded w

ith sharptails, and you often see them feeding in wheat fields. But make no doubt about it: As native prairie goes, so go sharptails.

Conversely, the best hunting is usually in the northern third of the state bounded by the Front Range, Alberta and Saskatchewan, North Dakota and the Missouri River. Sharptails are also well distributed in McCone, Dawson, Prairie and Wibaux counties as well as in the southeastern corner of Montana. The key with sharptails is healthy rangeland, so EQIP and WHIP projects that install rotational grazing systems are key. In many instances, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks uses its Upland Game Bird Habitat Enhancement Program (UGBHEP) to team up with NRCS and landowners.

"WHIP and EQIP projects that result in the development of rest-rotation grazing systems have substantial benefits to sharptails, Huns, and even pheasants over the long term," says biologist Pat Gunderson of the MDFWP in Glasgow. Gunderson earned his master's degree by studying sharptails in eastern Montana.

HUNS & SAGE GROUSE
Huns are a little harder to figure out, in that they use rangeland, cropland and CRP - all seemingly in equal doses. Since those habitats make up most of the region, it's a good idea to key in on shelterbelts and abandoned farmsteads that provide winter cover for the small birds in this harsh ecosystem. Huns stand to benefit substantially from WHIP and EQIP that improve shrub regeneration in native rangeland through better grazing management. The installation of shelterbelts around cropland through WHIP will also improve winter survival. Huns are abundant in the triangle between Great Falls, Shelby and Havre; around Stanford in Judith Basin County; and in the extreme eastern portion of the state.

Sage grouse are tied mainly to sagebrush habitats and associated wet meadows in east-central Montana south of the Missouri River. While they are mainly viewed as a public land species, it is important to note that most creek bottoms in eastern Montana are privately owned and that good private lands conservation can help sage grouse. Again, WHIP and EQIP grazing systems should make a difference. Surprisingly, good sage grouse habitat often has a few Huns.

PRIVATE LANDS - PUBLIC ACCESS
The real beauty of all this Farm Bill work in Montana is that much of it will likely be open to public hunting as part of the MDFWP's Block Management Program or other access programs. Here are a couple of good ways to look for the overlap between the Farm Bill programs and public access.

First, analyze CRP enrollment in Montana to determine which counties have the highest CRP acreage (see sidebar for CRP Web site). This gives you an indication of where to look for pheasants, sharptails and Huns, and perhaps, more importantly, serves as a reference point for landowners that have already signed up for a USDA program and have become familiar with NRCS. They are often knowledgeable of the other NRCS programs.

Next, obtain a Block Management Guide from FWP when it comes out in August. Finally, contact the regional FWP office and ask for a list of UGBHEP cooperators; these sites are all open to reasonable public access as a condition of their cost-sharing agreement with the MDFWP.

Then load up the bird dogs and go hunting!



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