The Sage-steppe Ecosystem
Sagebrush is the most widespread vegetation in the intermountain lowlands of the western United States, but sagebrush is also one of the most imperiled ecosystems in North America due to continued degradation and lack of protection.
Sagebrush is long-lived, with plants of some species surviving at least 150 years. Healthy sagebrush has plants of various age classes and a diverse understory of grasses and forbs that provide shelter and forage for a host of species from songbirds, pygmy rabbits, sagebrush lizards to iconic big game animals like mule deer, elk and pronghorn. While sagebrush may lack the wildlife diversity of a tropical rainforest, many species found in sagebrush, such as the Greater sage-grouse live nowhere else in the world.
North America’s vast “sagebrush sea” may appear to be monotonous and empty, but this arid intermountain landscape has supported humans since the first Native Americans colonized the continent more than 10,000 years ago. Sagebrush grasslands have been a cornerstone of the West’s ranching industry since its inception and many rural western communities rely on the seasonal economic boost provided by big-game hunters.
Sagebrush has resistance to environmental extremes, including drought, but once killed by fire or agricultural conversion, it can take decades to centuries for sagebrush to become reestablished. In addition to disturbance caused by residential development, oil and gas drilling and wind farms in the eastern half of its range, sagebrush can be negatively impacted by invasive plant species like juniper and cheatgrass in the western half of its range. Due to its low resistance to fire and long recovery times, the sagebrush ecosystem is particularly susceptible to more frequent fires caused by fire-loving weeds like cheatgrass.
- The Sagebrush Ecosystem (506.5 KB PDF)
- The Sagebrush Community
- USGS: Floristic Provinces of the Sagebrush Biome
- U.S. Forest Service: Habitat Assessment Procedure for Sagebrush Species of Concern
- Sage-grouse, Sagebrush and the Threat Posed by Invasive Annual Grasses/Increased Fire Frequency (1.63 MB PDF)