Sagebrush: the Ever-present Plant of the Owyhee
Updated: Jul 23, 2022
If you’ve been outdoors in eastern Oregon, western Idaho, or northern Nevada, I can guarantee that you have seen sagebrush. Sagebrush is the common name of several shrub species within the genus Artemisia, with the most common species being big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata). Sagebrush is known for its woody structure and pale greenery, but you may think of it as a simple jumping-off point for ticks to attach themselves to your legs if you don’t have long pants on. That’s the threat my dad always warned me with as a kid, anyway, but I suspect he primarily didn’t want to hear whining about scratched legs later that evening.
Sagebrush is most often seen in what’s known as a sagebrush steppe (pronounced “step”, just like when you walk), of which we have plenty here in the Owyhee. This plant community is typically dominated by—you guessed it—sagebrush. You may be tempted to think of this as a boring, barren landscape, but I’d encourage you to think again. In reality, this ecosystem is not that much different from a forest. There are numerous other species that exist alongside the sagebrush in these communities, including plenty of grasses and hundreds of vertebrate species, including the famous greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), the pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis), and the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana). So think of a sagebrush steppe as just a really short forest. That changes your perspective, doesn’t it?
Disclaimer, before we get too far into the science and plight of sagebrush: I am a biologist by trade, so I enjoy talking about scientific names and ecology. If it gets to be too much for you or if you’d like to talk more about science, feel free to get in touch with me and let me know your comments and critiques. I’d be more than happy to hear from you!
So, we’ve established that the sagebrush steppe is a complex ecosystem, with tons of flora and fauna that participate in it. This species is the glue that holds these ecosystems together. They form the base of the steppe that provides a source of water in an otherwise arid region, and as we all know, water is essential for life.
Now here comes the bad news: these ecosystems are in danger. As WCS states, they once thrived in large swaths of the western United States, but have since been broken up and damaged by a variety of forces. Introduced species like cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) significantly modify the fire regime, meaning that it’s much easier for ecosystems like this to burn. Other physical modifications like land erosion and water quality degradation have led to further habitat deterioration. In other words, the land is falling away and the water is getting dirtier, making it much more difficult for plants to grow and animals to graze, both of which are extremely important for ecosystem health.
This past Wednesday (March 17), the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) and many other organizations like the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released a report that detailed their work with almost 100 scientific experts on the current status of sagebrush habitats. Unfortunately, they came bearing bad news: this ecosystem continues to shrink rapidly in size due to several damaging factors. Their report does what any respectable scientific publication should do, though. It summarizes why should care about sagebrush habitats (Part I), what exactly is changing (Part II), and how we can conserve them (Part III).
As the communications coordinator, it’s my job to communicate things like this with you! So, let’s go through the parts of this report.
Part I: Importance of the Sagebrush Biome to People and Wildlife
Or: “Why you should care about sagebrush”
There are hundreds of different animals and plants that depend on sagebrush for their survival, many of which are endemic to the Owyhee, meaning that they are found in the Owyhee and nowhere else in the world. At the time of this report, the species listed below “have been petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act of 1973”. That means that people have told the US government that they want these animals protected, usually because their numbers are small and they are at risk of either endangerment or extinction. This includes:
Gunnison sage-grouse (Centrocercus minimus)
But that’s not to say that these are the only animals that have been affected by the decline in sagebrush steppe acreage. The pronghorn that we talked about before and the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) have also been subject to a decrease in population size.
Now, to play the devil’s advocate, why should you care? Your life remains unaffected if these ecosystems disappear, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Not only will we lose gorgeous recreation areas and cool animals and plants to admire, but there are also other repercussions that can affect human civilization more directly. One example is how the loss of sagebrush will affect the watershed. Many of our local water sources are located near these habitats, and without sagebrush roots to hold the soil in place, loose sediment can be blown or washed into our water supply. Do you want to drink or bathe in dirty water? Me neither.
Part II: Change Agents in the Sagebrush Biome—Extent, Impacts, and Effort to Address Them
Or: “What is changing sagebrush ecosystems”
With our changing climate and developing civilization, several factors threaten the overall health and longevity of sagebrush steppe systems. Invasive plant species—plants that are not a natural part of the ecosystem at hand, like cheatgrass—are great at dominating a habitat, so they push out other endemic species. They also can be much more flammable, increasing the chances of a wildfire sweeping the land.
Furthermore, one class of activities can be particularly damaging to the sagebrush and its home: human land uses. Things like energy development, converting portions of land to crops, infrastructure construction, and improper livestock grazing alter the land in significant ways, and the sagebrush has a difficult time adapting to that change. Combined with warmer temperatures and changes in precipitation timing and amount due to climate change, these changes will really give the sagebrush a run for its money. That sounds like a lot of pressure.
Part III: Current Conservation Paradigm and Other Conservation Needs for Sagebrush
Or: “How sagebrush is being protected and what else we need to do”
Conservation efforts for sagebrush-dependent and sagebrush-associated species like the sage-grouse are definitely heading in the right direction, but there needs to be more. Part of what is missing is extensive restoration of sagebrush communities that have already been affected by the factors I mentioned above. This will help to recuperate not only the sagebrush itself, but also its friends like the pygmy rabbit and the mule deer.
Another crucial aspect of this restoration work is communication. Reaching out and engaging folks like you is absolutely necessary to protect these environments. There has to be someone to inform you about what is going on with the natural world around you so that you can stand up and advocate for those pieces of the world that matter to you.
I hope you come away feeling like you know more about sagebrush and how important it really is to our beautiful Owyhee and our community. If you want to go a step further, become an advocate for sagebrush communities! Share this post with friends, family, and anyone who will listen, or even get in touch with me (Katalin) about what you can do.