Life in the Sagebrush

It’s aromatic and prolific, and it dominates the plant life of a broad expanse of Wyoming and Montana.

Sagebrush wildflowers

Wildflowers persist only as long as there is soil moisture, but the sage is there to stay.

Even though it appears to be lush and green following spring and summer rain, sagebrush thrives in arid lands that receive less than 10 inches of precipitation per year, by dropping its leaves when water is most scarce, and developing both a deep taproot system to access the water table and a network of superficial roots to access the moisture from rainfall.

Sagebrush in Wyoming

Sagebrush as far as the eye can see…

Stepping on or crushing the sage releases fragrant chemicals we associate with seasoning, but eaten in great quantity, these same chemicals are unpalatable and even toxic.  Only the Pronghorn, among large grazing mammals, and the Sage Grouse, among birds, can digest and tolerate the camphor oils and terpene compounds that sage plants use to defend against grazing herbivores.

Sage Grouse female

Sage Grouse browse the tender new leaves of sage and are able to hide quite effectively within the dense shrubbery with their cryptic coloration.  These are large ground birds, twice the size of their Ruffed Grouse cousins, that prefer to walk or run through their habitat rather than fly.

Ground squirrel

Cottontail rabbit

Rabbits are plentiful in the sagebrush community, but they, too avoid eating too much sagebrush and concentrate on annuals and other forbs.

Wyoming landscape

It’s hard to believe how much life there is out in the broad expanse of this harsh environment.

8 thoughts on “Life in the Sagebrush

  1. Great post. I’m hoping it won’t be too many more years before I can take another road trip, this time through the northern tier of western states. Keeping my fingers crossed!

    • I know you’ll love birding there — that area around our campsite in southwestern Wyoming on the Green River near Fontanelle was really rich in bird diversity. It’s the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge.

  2. Sue Perhaps you already know, but the burrowing animal that you pictured but did not identify is a ground squirrel, rather unique to western Montana and northern Idaho.  Lewis & Clark were the first to see and categorize these.  Chad

    • Thanks, Chad. The caption somehow got left off of that photo when I was trying to blog from the field with a weak wifi signal. I couldn’t decide which species of ground squirrel, though. Do you know which one it might have been in southwestern Wyoming?

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