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Sagebrush for Survival

Sagebrush is crucial to the survival of sage-grouse, so it is important to recognize the different kinds of sagebrush. Did you know that over ten different sagebrush species grow in Idaho? 
Sagebrush communities provide cover and food for sage-grouse, so it is important to recognize the key plants, which helps us assess and manage these habitats. The following information identifies and describes the most common sagebrush associated with sage-grouse habitat in Idaho.

Tall Sagebrush

Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) is the most widespread sagebrush species and is used widely for nesting habitat. Listed below are the three most common subspecies found in Idaho. The subspecies can appear similar to the casual observer, but can be readily identified with minimal training.

Wyoming Big Sagebrush

Wyoming big sagebrush 
(Artemisia tridentata ssp. wyomingensis) is a medium sized shrub that grows up to 3 feet tall. It branches at the base and has an uneven crown. It generally grows on dryer sites that receive between 7 and 12 inches of precipitation (water) annually and is usually found between 2,500 and 6,500 feet in elevation. Sage-grouse use it for nesting, wintering, and brood-rearing habitat.

 Mountain big sagebrush closeup

Mountain big sagebrush

(Artemisia tridentata ssp. vaseyana) generally grows above 5,000 feet in elevation and prefers moist, deep soils that receive between 14 and 22 inches of precipitation annually. It branches at the base and can grow up to 3 feet tall. The crown is typically even and flat topped. It can be a major source of food during winter for grouse but is also used for nesting and brood- rearing habitat.

 Basin big sagebrush 
Basin big sagebrush 

(Artemisia tridentata ssp. tridentata) is most common on relatively moist productive sites such as valley bottoms and drainage areas. It can reach 3 to 10 feet in height. Many areas that were once occupied by this subspecies have been converted to croplands because of the fertility of these sites. Its tall and tree-like structure provides poor nesting cover. Sage-grouse may find it to be less palatable (tasty) than other sagebrush species.
 Silver sagebrush 
Silver sagebrush 

(Artemisia cana) Two subspecies occur in Idaho; mountain (A. cana ssp. viscidula) and bolander (A. cana ssp. bolanderi). Mountain silver sagebrush is found on seasonal wet, productive sites at elevations between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. It only grows up to 1 foot in height so it has limited value for nesting habitat, but is very palatable (tasty). Bolander silver sagebrush can grow up to 3 feet tall and prefers poorly drained, alkaline soils.
 Tall threetip sagebrush by Matt Lavin
Credit: Matt Lavin

Tall threetip sagebrush

(Artemisia tripartita ssp. tripartita) occurs commonly in the Upper Snake River Plain between 3,400 and 7,100 feet in elevation where the annual precipitation ranges from 11 to 15 inches. It prefers deep, well drained soils, and is often mixed with mountain big sagebrush. It generally grows 16 to 32 inches tall and can provide food, cover, and nesting habitat. It is one of the only sagebrush species that will resprout after a fire.


Dwarf sagebrush

Black sagebrush 
Black sagebrush (Artemisia nova) is a short shrub that grows between 4 and 12 inches in height. It can be found on thin and rocky soil from 4,900 to 7,000 feet elevation where precipitation averages 7 to 18 inches. Sage-grouse can use it for winter and brood-rearing habitat.
Dwarf sagebrush

Little (or low) sagebrush (Artemisia arbuscula) grows up to 16 inches in height on rocky or thin soil, or very dry sites. It is a very palatable species and can provide habitat throughout the year. Sage-grouse will use it for nesting, though they typically will seek taller sagebrush species if available.

 Artemisia longiloba
Early (alkali) sagebrush (Artemisia longiloba) looks very similar in color and structure to little sagebrush. It is a low growing shrub that typically occupies rocky, shallow, and poor-draining soils. Early sagebrush flowers very early in the season compared with other sagebrush species. It is a highly palatable (tasty) species and is the dominant sagebrush on some of the largest leks in Idaho.
 Artemisia rigida
Stiff sagebrush (Artemisia rigida) grows from 12 to 16 inches tall on very shallow soils. It has brittle or stiff branches and is deciduous. Stiff sagebrush sites can provide sage-grouse with late brood-rearing habitat because the sites are often wet enough to support a large diversity of forbs.