Conservation Corner: Sagebrush in the ecosystem

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While large clusters of brush on the landscape can be a nuisance to many agricultural producers by competing with grasses and other palatable plants, sagebrush can have several positive effects on the ecosystem. Sagebrush provides critical forage and cover to numerous wildlife species. Sagebrush can also have large effects on the local water table. 

Moreover, sagebrush is an important integral habitat component for native wildlife across Northwest Colorado.  The evergreen leaves and profuse seed production provides an excellent winter food source to large game species and smaller mammals. Sagebrush maintains a high level of nutrients (crude protein) making it a high value forage. Sagebrush also provides cover for several bird and rodent species, including numerous types of grouse.

How can sagebrush save water? Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) has a two-part root system, a deep tap root and a shallow, diffusing structure. The two root types allow the sage to create a “hydraulic lift.” Meaning moisture in deep soil is brought to the surface by the tap root during the day. At night, the moisture is released into the surrounding soil. The moisture is then available to the sage’s shallow root system and surrounding plants. Water retention is also increased by sage trapping and holding windblown snow. 

Sagebrush management is changing. Historically, all brush was removed to allow more grass growth. Now, complete removal is shown to be detrimental to the ecosystem and has little long-term effect on native perennial grass production. It can decrease plant diversity, but increase weed density; increasing fire danger.  Thinning sagebrush and working in a mosaic pattern is recommended when sagebrush treatments are conducted.  

Learn more by visiting https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_artr2.pdf

USDA NRCS. Plant Guide. “Big Sagebrush.”


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