U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIORBUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
Where It Is, What It Is
The Great Basin is defined as the area wedged between the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the west and the Wasatch branch of the Rocky Mountains on the east, and the Snake River to the north. Its southern boundary cuts across the lower tip of Nevada and the southwestern corner of Utah, where land takes on the characteristics of the Mojave and Sonora deserts.
The Great Basin spans about 900 miles at it’s longest point, and is about 570 miles wide from east to west.
For purposes of the Great Basin Restoration Initiative, the Great Basin includes most of Nevada, the western half of Utah, the lower third of Idaho, the southeast corner of Oregon, and a narrow strip of eastern California. About 60 percent of the land in this area is publicly owned and managed by BLM.
From mountain ranges that reach above 10,000 feet to sandy plains and dry lakebeds on desert floors, the Great Basin features a variety of vegetation. Within the region, three major plant communities grow: sagebrush, salt desert shrub and pinyon and/or juniper woodlands. Temperature and moisture dictate where each is found. Salt desert shrub usually grows in low, dry elevations, while sagebrush needs more moist surroundings with sandy and slightly alkaline soils. Pinyon-juniper woodlands skirt the flanks of mountains, while forests of pine, spruce, fir and aspen blanket the high peaks.
The sagebrush community, consisting of a mix of shrubs, perennial grasses and forbs, is the most common. Much of the Great Basin’s vegetation is changing. For example, more than 70 percent of the native sagebrush in parts in eastern Idaho has been destroyed in recent years by wildfire. Only about 40 percent of the aspen remains compared with what existed 150 years ago.
The Great Basin is a region that can receive 80 percent of the sunshine possible at its latitude. Generally, the land averages less than 12 inches of precipitation a year. When disturbed, it takes a long time to heal.
Far from being a wasteland, the Great Basin is home to about 100 bird, 70 mammal, and 23 amphibian and reptile species. Among the wildlife are antelope, elk, mountain sheep, mule deer, wild horses, sage grouse, horned lizards, black-tailed jackrabbits, and many others. It is also home to many plants, some of which are threatened or endangered.
In its naturally functioning state, the Great Basin consists of a surprising array of ecosystems. Plants and animals have adapted in many ways to survive in a land that can be harsh. Writer Stephen Trimble expressed it well: "With remarkable variety in combinations of species, the metaphorical sagebrush ocean embraces currents, tides, eddies, and embayments. This is a complex and dynamic sea."