The Heart of Sagebrush

While most other woody plants are dormant in winter, sagebrush continues to grow, even when nearly buried in snow. On sunny days its leaves take in the energy needed for photosynthesis that fuels slow, steady growth. Scientifically, big sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata) is related to the sunflower, but aside from their plant superpower of turning sunshine into food, the two seem to have little in common. 

Artemesia's tallest branches peek out of snowdrifts to feed greater sage-grouse and other wildlife. Seeds not eaten for their high protein content are scattered by the winds, while branches hold scarce moisture in the ecosystem by capturing blowing snow. 

Sagebrush holds snow drifts
USFWS/Tom Koerner

When temperatures climb above freezing, snowmelt will water the seeds to sprout, also enlivening standing sagebrush, native grasses and flowering plants that provide food and cover in the spring and summer

Recent science shows that 1.9 million acres of sagebrush habitat were lost between 2012 and 2018. Climate effects such as drought, increasing wildfires and invasive species accelerate habitat loss. While burned areas can be restored, treatment is costly and uncertain to be effective before sage-grouse and other wildlife are forced to leave the areas permanently. 

Hands plant a sagebrush seedling that is then shown in dry ground
Restoring sagebrush lands sometimes involves hand planting sagebrush seedlings. Numerous site-specific conditions determine whether plantings are successful. BLM-Idaho; USFWS/Tom Koerner

With a commitment to improving conditions for greater sage-grouse and hundreds of other wildlife species, the BLM is evaluating the plans adopted in 2015 to manage sagebrush habitat on public lands. Monitoring data and new scientific information published since 2015 will help us determine whether there are other steps we should take to benefit sage-grouse and people across the West who rely on healthy sagebrush lands.  

More stories about sage-grouse on BLM-managed public lands

In SEASON: Lands for a thousand dances | All the better for nesting | All in a day's walk | A year in the life 

In BALANCE: Predators | Wildland fire 

In PROGRESS: Next steps for sage-grouse | More than the numbers | According to plan 

Heather Feeney, Public Affairs Specialist

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