All about sagebrush


Sagebrush is one of the most iconic plants populating the west. Found throughout the state, sagebrush is a common and sometimes mundane scene while traveling across Wyoming. Although perhaps not the most interesting backdrop, sagebrush serves an important function in ecosystems.

There are many different species of sagebrush found in Wyoming. The different species are found growing everywhere, from low to high elevations and in cold and hot regions. These plants can have woody or non-woody stems. Sagebrush is in the Artemisia family, which is known for its ability to easily hybridize. There are currently 21 species and 16 varieties found in Wyoming. Four species are actually introduced, yet survive in Wyoming because of its similar habitat to their origins.

Common woody species found growing in Wyoming include black sagebrush, big sagebrush, silver sagebrush, fringe sage, and sand sage. Non-woody species include alpine sagebrush, tarragon, field sagewort, and Michaux sagewort. When considering varieties, big sagebrush is an excellent example of hybridization. Big sagebrush has 6 varieties or sub species, four of which are found in Wyoming. Perhaps one of the most well known varieties is Wyoming big sagebrush. This specific subspecies was actually identified and classified by Dr. Beetle at the University of Wyoming. Other subspecies include mountain big sagebrush, found at high elevations and basin big sagebrush found at lower elevations in most of Wyoming’s lowlands.

Sagebrush provides many different services, acting as a food source, cover habitat, snow catchment and soil stabilization. As a food source, sagebrush serves as a major role during winter months. The plant’s leaves stay green through the winter which provide higher nutrition for grazing animals than other dormant plants. As an evergreen, it’s estimated crude protein levels are around 11% during crucial winter months. Additionally, the plant’s ridged stems help stick out of the snow making them accessible to wildlife. Some studies have suggested that during the winter, sagebrush makes up 100 percent of sage grouse diets, over 75 percent of antelope diets, and over 50 percent of diets for deer and elk in some areas. Livestock, however, do not consume sagebrush in large quantities like that of native ungulates, yet it can serve as a food source during certain times of the year.

Acting as cover, sagebrush is a great source of security for wildlife to hide from predators. Basin big sagebrush can range in height from two to 13 feet tall which means it can conceal upland game birds, small mammals, and even big game. Birds, including sage grouse, use sagebrush for concealing nests from predators during the spring and summer. This structure also provides much needed thermal cover during cold and windy conditions. Sagebrush acts as an excellent habitat source for many wildlife species. The height of certain sagebrush plants can often indicate how deep and the quality of a soil. As one might guess the taller the plant, the deeper the soil profile and fertility.

Sagebrush can be a difficult plant to manage depending on what you are trying to accomplish. Reestablishment of sagebrush is often a challenge for reclamation. Some species of sagebrush re-sprout but most will not re-sprout if burned or if the above ground foliage is completely removed. When this happens sagebrush must establish and grow from seed which can be difficult, especially if there is lots of competition from other plants or harsh growing conditions. For eastern Wyoming this is especially true since it is on the eastern edge of sagebrush’s domain.

Sagebrush enjoys a spring dominated precipitation pattern, meaning areas that receive lots of snow and rain during the months of April and May with drier conditions during warmer summer months are ideal. The spring moisture pattern provides lots of moisture during the cooler months of sagebrush’s growing season and less for other plants to compete during the summer. Eastern Wyoming receives a greater influx of precipitation during the summer from the Gulf of Mexico than western Wyoming. The summer influx of precipitation allows other plants to compete directly with sagebrush while sagebrush is not actively growing because of less than ideal summer temperatures.

If attempting to establish sagebrush, it is important to provide adequate protection of any existing mature plants since they are an excellent seed source. Seeds from existing plants can be harvested to be replanted for establishing new plants, yet this is not always necessary since existing plants can establish new plants easily. For large areas mechanical seeding is needed.

When starting to reseed sagebrush, a proper seed source is critical. Purchase seed from a company that is growing their seeds in a similar environment to that of the area you are planning to reseed. For example, if you are reseeding in the Powder River basin you most likely do not want to purchase seed from a company in Western Washington where maternal plants are growing in a much different climate than Wyoming. Next you will need to decide on a conducive seeding rate, mix, and application. It is suggested that mixing sagebrush with a grass mix is often effective. The seeding rates range from .025 lbs pure live seed (PLS) per acre at one-eighth of an inch for drill seeding and 0.05-0.075 lbs PLS per acre when broadcast seeding.

Seeding in the late fall and early winter is the best time to plant seeds in hopes of stratifying seeds. As pointed out earlier, you should mix the seed with native grasses and forbs. Sometimes this can be expensive, but hopefully the native grasses and forbs will reduce competition from invasive plants. The main thing to remember with establishing sagebrush is be patient. Plants take a long time to establish so don’t expect to have plants two feet tall at the end of the first growing season.

When considering what it takes to establish sagebrush, it is probably hard to think that sagebrush is also difficult to keep thinned at desired densities. Fortunately, there are several treatments land managers can use to keep sagebrush at desired densities. Some managers suggest keeping sagebrush at a density of around 400 plants per acre to provide adequate wildlife habitat and range production. Maintaining mosaic patterns with each treatment should also be implemented for providing quality habitat.

Chemical treatment can be an option for controlling sagebrush. Tebuthiuron, a chemical herbicide, is commonly used for sagebrush control by disrupting the photosynthetic processes of the plant, eventually killing it. This chemical should be used for thinning and not complete control since it is a non-selective herbicide and will harm other plants too.

Burning is an effective control method that can eliminate sagebrush in certain areas, yet is often hard to use for thinning stands. Take note of invasive species nearby that may move into the treated area following the fire. Additional weed control is needed with this method.

If partial plant removal is desired, consider mowing, chaining, management intensive grazing, and disking. These methods are intended to remove portions of sagebrush foliage. Management intensive grazing is effective in the spring when woody plants can be damaged from hoof impact with high stocking rates. Treatments with mechanical equipment for mowing, disking, and chaining are most effective with drier soils to avoid getting stuck and effectively removing portion of the plant.


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