Sage Grouse-Energy Leases

A male sage grouses fight for the attention of females southwest of Rawlins, Wyo., in this AP file photo. 

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Hunters who bag upland birds in southwest Montana this fall can help biologists monitor populations and habitat by dropping wings into barrels scattered across the region.

Mountain grouse, partridge, sharp-tailed grouse and turkey seasons started Wednesday and end Jan. 1. Sage grouse season started Wednesday and runs until Sept. 30. Pheasants can be hunted between Oct. 9 and Jan. 1.

The wing samples help biologists track game bird populations and habitat health, said Dean Waltee, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologist based in Sheridan. Biologists are particularly interested in monitoring sage grouse chick survival rates over time.

There are 15 wing collection barrels set up at parking lots and along travel routes throughout Madison and Beaverhead counties, Waltee said. Biologists want wing samples from sage grouse, mountain grouse and Hungarian partridge.

Hunters who drop off samples should submit one wing per bird so counts are accurate. Wings can also be turned into area wildlife biologists or game wardens.

Biologists analyze the samples to determine the species of bird and its age class. That information tells scientists more about annual juvenile recruitment, or the rate at which chicks survive to become juvenile in a given year.

Over the past four or five years, FWP has observed relatively low sage grouse chick recruitment in southwest Montana during the fall, according to Waltee. The department has also seen sage grouse populations decline slightly overall due to relatively low chick production.

The rates at which sage grouse chicks survive vary significantly from year to year due to many environmental factors, Waltee said.

Extended periods of wet and cold can result in lower hatch rates and fewer chicks. At the same time, extended dry spells during the summer can reduce the amount of vegetation and insects available, which causes more chicks to die.

It’s difficult to predict exactly how this year’s drought impacted chick survival, but Waltee said he expects rates will be low in areas that were extremely dry. Populations could do quite well wetter, localized areas that had ample forage, he said.

“Because of the mixed dryness, I don’t know what to expect in terms of the overall effect,” Waltee said. “I expect we will see that juvenile recruitment is highly variable.”

Widespread drought may drive birds closer to water sources, which could influence upland game bird hunting opportunities this fall, Debbie Hohler, an upland game bird biologist for FWP, wrote in an email.

In western Montana, biologists saw a good number of adult birds in early summer but haven’t been seeing many broods of late, according to a forecast from the department.

“Numbers in the fall will probably be average or below average,” officials wrote.

On Monday, hunting restrictions were in effect on 20 block management areas in Region 3 because of high fire danger. Twelve of the areas were fully closed to hunting. Stage one and two fire restrictions were still in effect across much of the region. Details on which areas are closed are available on FWP’s website.

Weather patterns, county and state ordinances and landowner discretion all will influence when the restrictions are lifted, according to FWP.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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