Sagebrush Steppe

What is the Sagebrush Steppe?

Mountain big sagebrush with single-leaf pinyon pine in central Nevada at sunset during a summer rainstorm.

A vast portion of the Great Basin, Intermontane valleys and mountains between the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada-Cascade axis, and higher ranges in the Western U.S. are habitat for a diversity of sagebrush (Artemisia) species. This habitat is dominated by evergreen shrubs, such as various species of rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus and Ericameria spp.), Mormon tea (Ephedra spp.), bitterbrush (Purshia spp.), some cacti, and a variety of forbs and grasses.

Sagebrush species, subspecies, and ecotypes are diverse across a wide variety of soil types--from deep loamy soils to thin gravelley and rocky soils. Sagebrush types grow on plains, alluvial fans, valley bottoms, foothills, mountain slopes, and high montane ridges and peaks to over 11,000 feet elevation.

Winters are cold, with snow storms common, and springs are often rainy. Early summer can be dry (even hot and arid), yet most of the sagebrush habitats receive a fair amount of summer rains.

Sagebrush scrub habitats are found in and transition into meadows, saltbush scrub, ponderosa pine forests, pinyon-juniper woodlands, western juniper communities, lodgepole pine forests, limber pine and bristlecone pine forests, oak groves, and high-elevation alpine habitats.

Sagebrush plants may live to 50 years or longer, and after two years produce prolific seeds which are dispersed by animals and wind. Germination rates are high. 

Low sagebrush

Artemisia arbuscula

Mountain big sagebrush

Artemisia tridentata var. vaseyana

Black sagebrush

Artemisia nova

Basin big sagebrush

Artemisia tridentata var. tridentata

The word steppe refers to an arid open grassland and shrub-grass habitats with temperate continental climates (cold winters and warm summers). Snow often remains on the ground for more than a month. Summer rain is common. Steppes occur in mid-latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere where large land masses have reduced the ameliorating weather inffuence from oceans. Large areas of steppes occur in southern Eurasia and the interior of North America. Smaller steppe regions can be found in South American mountains, as well as in New Zealand and Australia. The word "steppe" originates from the Slavic for "flat grassy plain" or "extensive treeless plain."


Stipa comata

Idaho fescue

Festuca idahoensis

Sandberg's bluegrass

Poa secunda ssp. secunda

Bluebunch wheatgrass

Agropyron spicatum (also known as Pseudoroegneria spicata)

Big sagebrush and single-leaf pinyon pine in central Nevada.

Mountain big sagebrush and sulphur buckwheat in the limber pine belt, 9,000 feet, eastern White Mountains, California.

Basin big sagebrush in meadow, Reese River Valley, Nevada.

Grassy sagebrush flat with needle-and-thread bunches and mountain big sagebrush, Utah juniper. Silver Peak Range, Nevada.

Fringed sagebrush, Lost River Valley, Idaho.

Basin big sagebrush, greasewood, Great Basin wildrye, and cheatgrass. Bison Jump, Idaho.

Bluebunch wheatgrass and sagebrush, northeastern Nevada.

Winter sagebrush basin east of Fallon, Nevada.

Basin big sagebrush in pinyon-juniper woodland in summe, southern Colorado.

Low sagebrush at 10,000 feet on the White Mountains, with the Sierra Nevada in the distance, California.