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Montana Delays Nonresident Upland Opener?

Growing resident hunters’ frustration with nonresident participation in Montana’s upland bird seasons may culminate later this month in a controversial proposal to delay the nonresident hunting opener by two weeks.

The specific proposal, first articulated by Fish, Wildlife & Parks Director Dustin Temple and later formally proposed by the commission’s chair, would move the opener for sharptail grouse, sage grouse, and Hungarian and chukar partridge to Sept. 15. The current resident and nonresident opener is Sept. 1. According to the proposal, which will be heard by the full Fish and Wildlife Commission at its Feb. 16 meeting, Montana would maintain the Sept. 1 resident opener, but non-residents would have to wait another two weeks to hit the field. South Dakota currently employs a staggered opener for resident and nonresident hunters.

A second amendment to the current regulations would adjust the dog-training start date for nonresidents from Aug. 15 to Sept. 1.

The commission will also hear department proposals to increase fall turkey bag limits in northwest Montana, and adjustments to bag limits in both south-central and southeast Montana.

But the headliner is the proposal to delay by a fortnight the nonresident upland opener. For the past several years, resident bird hunters have complained about the number and duration of nonresident hunters. In some areas of northeastern Montana, with its combination of bird abundance and ready access, nonresident pressure far exceeds that of resident hunting pressure. The proposal would essentially create a two-week resident-only season for the first two weeks of September.

Nonresidents would be able to hunt starting Sept. 15. Both resident and nonresident upland seasons close Jan. 1 for sharptails and partridges along with pheasants. The Montana sage grouse season ends Sept. 30.

Another proposal, which hasn’t yet been adopted by or even recognized by the state’s wildlife commission, would apply the same delay to the nonresident pheasant season, delaying the nonresident opener by a full week.

It should be noted that a good deal of the angst over nonresident upland pressure comes from a growing number of commercial dog trainers who over the last several years have descended on northeastern Montana’s public land to run big strings of dogs starting in July and remaining in the field until well after the traditional Sept. 1 upland opener. Previously there has been no prohibition on this activity, but a number of advocates have called for curtailing this training season, especially for nonresident trainers.


The group that has the most unified position calling for adjustments to the nonresident upland opener is a trio of conservation groups headlined by the Big Sky Upland Bird Association, the Montana Wildlife Federation, and the Montana Sportsman Alliance. This group has forwarded a number of recommendations, including:

  • Prohibition on nonresident dog training activities on wild and captive-reared birds on public lands or publicly accessible lands, including Block Management, Open Fields, and the state’s Upland Game Bird Enhancement Projects

  • Delay nonresident sharptail, sage grouse, and partridge seasons to Sept. 15.

  • Open pheasant season as normal the Saturday of Columbus Day weekend for both resident and nonresident hunters, but restrict nonresidents to private land, excluding Block Management, Open Fields, and Upland Game Bird Enhancement projects, for the first week of the season.

While some observers have cited a “Covid bump” for the temporary increase in hunting pressure in Montana’s upland seasons, others have noted a longer trend that is putting more hunters, especially mobile nonresident hunters who travel from one upland opener to the next, in the grouse and partridge fields. In 2018, Montana sold 4,213 nonresident upland bird licenses. In 2023, that number had nearly doubled to 8,001. Similarly, in 2018, Montana sold 2,112 3-day nonresident upland bird hunting licenses. In 2023, the state sold 3,491 3-day licenses.

Combined, the state sold over 80 percent as many, 6,325 to 11,492, combined nonresident license types, in that 5-year span.

“We can no longer pretend this is a one- or two-year anomaly,” wrote one longtime resident upland hunter. “Interest in Montana is indeed increasing. This had long been a hypothesis or ‘feeling’ from bird hunters but can now be quantified by the license-sales data. This increase, combined with a fairly static number of resident bird hunters – perhaps even increasing if you assume many of the Sportsman license holders hunt birds – then something has to give.”

That “give” will be debated at the Feb. 16 commission meeting, where one of the items is sure to be a discussion of those bird-dog training rules. Some resident hunters have questioned the sense of allowing nonresident trainers in the field while resident hunters are actively hunting.




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