While often portrayed as a hot, barren, dusty desert, healthy sagebrush habitats are, in fact, a colorful and complex ecosystem where sagebrush grows in delicate balance with other shrubs, trees, bunchgrasses and wildflowers. The landscape is replete with lakes, rivers, streams, springs and wetlands, hot springs, alkali flats, salt flats, sand dunes, volcanic rock formations and mountain ranges.
Sagebrush (Artemisia spp.), the signature species of the Sagebrush Sea, is among the most widely distributed native plants in the western United States. Approximately 27 varieties of sagebrush grow in the West from sea level to nearly 12,000 feet and in areas that receive as little as eight inches of precipitation per year.
The Sagebrush Sea supports hundreds of species of fish and wildlife. The landscape is vital habitat for the charismatic sage-grouse, the tiny pygmy rabbit, the fleet-footed pronghorn, and the gorgeous Lahontan cutthroat trout. The ecosystem is also a migratory corridor for birds and important winter habitat for mule deer and elk. At least 15 species of raptors use sagebrush habitat. Carnivores including weasels, badgers and cougars prowl the Sagebrush Sea, and wolves have been seen traversing the landscape. Even the insects are diverse - more than 1,250 insect species have been identified on a single tract of sagebrush in Idaho.Though historically maligned—Robert Louis Stevenson plaintively wrote, “sage-brush, eternal sage-brush”— more Americans are coming to know and appreciate the Sagebrush Sea as cherished open space that supports an increasing number of recreational and sustainable economic opportunities, as well as a variety of fish and wildlife.
THE SAGEBRUSH SEA
Produced over three years by a team of biologists and filmmakers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The Sagebrush Sea is a one-hour documentary that looks at life in sagebrush country through the eyes of the greater sage-grouse, and explores our impact on this vital landscape. As the seasons change, the film explores the surprising diversity of life that relies on sagebrush steppe, including songbirds, mule deer, pronghorn, and golden eagles.
But in the shadow of energy development and other land uses, these lucrative basins are contested territory. Here, sage-grouse are sensitive barometers for environmental change. The sagebrush landscape is changing, and some timeless elements of its sense of place — the cascading songs of sage thrashers, the otherworldly booming of strutting grouse, the widely-spaced tracks of a pronghorn’s race against ancient predators — are at risk of fading away.
The Sagebrush Sea is available to view in full at PBS / Nature.
Healthy sagebrush steppe includes a dense understory of native grasses and wildflowers that are important food and cover for wildlife.Kirk Peterson