Upland Bird Hunting in Montana
Montana’s big game species garner much of the attention during hunting season—but the excellent upland game bird hunting in the Big Sky state should not be overlooked! Whether you’re seeking an opportunity to work your dogs or just a chance to get outside, bird-hunting adventures abound in Montana. The myriad of species and varied terrain create endless opportunities for truly memorable hunts.
Upland Game Birds
Upland game birds are those found in areas above wetlands and riparian zones (swamps, marshes, and rivers or lakes). Essentially any non-waterfowl game bird is considered upland game—as it is “up-land” from water-laden areas. Montana is home to nine species of upland birds, including native sharp-tailed grouse, blue grouse, spruce grouse, prairie chicken, sage grouse, ruffed grouse, ptarmigan, and chukar partridge. There are also populations of non-native, but highly desired ring-necked pheasant, Hungarian (gray) partridge, and wild turkey—although some of the stocking programs for these birds have become controversial in recent years. The official state website (mt.gov) offers a comprehensive Field Guide to upland game bird hunting and includes detailed information on each resident species and its preferred habitat in the different regions of Montana.
Where To Hunt Upland Birds
The variety of upland birds, all with diverse habitats, means that bird hunts in Montana can take place across many different types of terrain—from challenging mountain topography to vast, open prairies. While ruffed grouse are often found in the mountains of Western Montana, some of the best sage grouse hunting can be found in sagebrush-covered areas in the central and eastern parts of the state, east of the Continental Divide.
Because you can find upland birds almost everywhere in Montana (especially the rapidly growing populations of wild turkey), there is a lot of ground to cover when you hunt in “Big Sky Country”. Hunters should plan on doing a fair amount of hiking and it’s often the more remote areas, away from the heavy foot traffic of other hunters, that produce the best results.
The annual FWP Upland Game Bird Forecast details the habitat conditions and population forecast for bird species in each geographic area of Montana. In general, the periods of drought and extreme winter conditions over the last few years have brought many upland bird population numbers below average—but thanks to plenty of moisture this summer, habitat conditions are improving. While upland birds are easily impacted by climate conditions, they are also quick to rebound.
Montana permits hunting on more than 30 million acres of public land, including both state and federal property. Even protected lands such as Wildlife Management Areas, National Forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acreage, and Wildlife Refuge areas are open to the public for hunting (within regulations). Hunting on private land is also permitted, but hunters should always have permission to access private property that is not their own.
The Block Management program expands accessible hunting regions even further, affording access to participating private properties and isolated public lands as long as hunters sign in and enter on foot. Annually updated maps of lands included in the Block Management program can be found on the FWP website, including maps of all 7 regions, and individual maps of each participating property. Of course, it’s hard to beat hunting on your own Montana farm or ranch land, but exploring nearby Block Management areas can open up new hunting opportunities—even for locals. If you’re willing to walk, there is no shortage of upland bird hunting experiences in Montana.
Hunting Seasons and Regulations
The hunting season for upland game birds begins in the fall and ends on the first of January. Many experienced bird hunters believe the best hunting conditions are present during the worst weather—so don’t discount the cold and wet days at the end of the season. As with any type of hunting in Montana, the season and regulations are managed by the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Department (FWP).
2023 Upland game bird seasons
Mountain grouse: Sept. 1 to Jan. 1, 2024
Partridge: Sept. 1 to Jan. 1, 2024
Pheasant: Oct. 7 to Jan. 1, 2024
Sage grouse: Sept. 1 to Sept. 30
Sharp-tailed grouse: Sept. 1 to Jan. 1, 2024
- Spring: April 15 to May 31
- Fall: Sept. 1 to Jan. 1, 2024
Before the 1950s large populations of pheasant, turkey, partridge, and grouse were nearly decimated due to overhunting—spurring species-specific bag limits to be put in place. Be sure to have the proper hunting permits and E-Tags (for harvest validation) with you in the field and be familiar with the regulations and bag limits for the species you are hunting. The 2023 season bag limits from the FWP are below, but the full regulations can be found on the FWP website.
Man’s Best Friend
You can’t talk about bird hunting without mentioning gun dogs (bird dogs). Often pointers, spaniels, or retrievers, gun dogs are frequently a part of an upland bird hunt. Excellent at locating and retrieving game birds, hunting with a dog is also a great bonding experience for people and their pets. Challenging terrain, unpredictable weather, and long hours of hunting can be hard on your dogs, so make sure you are prepared with food and water, as well as emergency medical supplies. Be aware of exhaustion for both you and your pet, especially if the animal has not been trained in Montana.
Hunting with dogs does mean additional regulations and permits—so be sure to check the FWP website for details before Fido gets in the car. Anyone training bird dogs using wild game will require an additional license, and dog training is not permitted within a mile of any wildlife preserves, nesting, or management areas.
Good luck to all the upland bird hunters as we enter the last month of the 2023 hunting season. Contact Western Ranch Brokers for more information on Montana ranches for sale with upland bird hunting opportunities.