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Driving across the Great Basin, the sea of sagebrush seems both monotonous and endless. However, the diversity of the plants and animals hidden within this “sea” would surprise most people.

To understand Nevada’s state flower -- sagebrush --and its ecosystem, a look back in time is necessary. The state’s landscape has changed through the years as glaciers expanded and receded, causing long-term climate cycles. We know that plant species all have different ranges of tolerance for drought and wet periods, as well as hot or cold climates. The glaciers relatively slow movement forced many plant species to migrate, evolve or go extinct. Species evolve at different rates, so this process of movement, evolution and extinction formed a virtual mosaic of plant life across the Great Basin and which is still continuing even today.

During wet, cool periods, tree communities such as the pinion/juniper shrub community flourished, but with the advent of warmer drier climates, they receded and the sagebrush/grassland communities advanced.

Approximately 400 to 500 years ago, a period of wet and cool winters began in what is known as the “Little Ice Age.” This continued until the mid 1800s when the trend reversed and our climate became warmer and drier, allowing the expansion of the sagebrush and grasses within the Great Basin.

The typical climate in sagebrush areas is semi-arid, with long, cold winters followed by hot dry summers. Typically most of the plants moisture is provided by snow and early spring rains. Summer storms, while intense, are often short in duration, with the moisture evaporating quickly before plants are able to take advantage of it. Some scientists estimate that only half of the annual precipitation in these areas actually becomes available for plant use.

So what appears to the average observer as an endless expanse of sagebrush, is actually a complex ecosystem that is made up of three typical components that are critical to the ecosystem as a whole; the sagebrush overstory, the understory of grasses and forbs (leafy flowering plants) and the biological crust, or soil surface, composed of algae, fungi, lichens and mosses.

The biological crust is very important as it protects against the invasion of non-native and noxious plants. Once destroyed, it may take years to heal in an area with large temperature extremes and little moisture.

If one part of the ecosystem is damaged then the others suffer as well. Fire is one of the biggest threats facing the sagebrush habitat in Nevada. Following years of extreme fire suppression and the invasion of noxious weeds, today’s fires are more frequent, larger and hotter than before European settlement of the Great Basin.
These fires are often fueled by cheatgrass and other noxious weeds which act
as tinder and provide a continuous fuel layer, unlike the native bunchgrasses and forbs. After a fire, the native plants must be re-established by wind-born seeds, or the seed bank left in the ground. Sagebrush seeds generally fall close to the parent plant, often times only a few feet away, so in a large burn, the sagebrush comes back slowly moving from the outer edge towards the center.

It can take many years for the sagebrush to return and with the encroachment of
noxious weeds, some areas never return to sagebrush habitat, contributing to the loss of much of the wildlife that is dependent upon it. All three components are necessary for the integrity of this ecosystem as well as to the wildlife that lives there.

While the current focus is on the declining populations of sage grouse, most people overlook the fact that approximately 100 mammals, 70 birds and more than 20 reptiles and amphibians call the sagebrush community home. Many of these species are found nowhere else, and some are sagebrush obligate species, meaning they need sagebrush to survive.

Some common sagebrush obligates include sage grouse, Brewers sparrow, pygmy rabbit and pronghorn antelope to name a few. Sagebrush often provides the only green source of vegetation in the winter and many of these animals have developed digestive systems to handle the gray fuzzy leaves of the sagebrush.

Many birds and animals find cover and food in the grassy understory, often nesting and raising young here. The grasses and forbs found here provide good nutrition in the spring and early summer. The insects found here provide protein needed for the quick growth of many young animals.

So take a walk through sagebrush and see it up close and personal. Observe the many plants that make up the understory and crust, as well as the myriad of small mammals and birds that make there home here. See where they live, what they eat and how they interact. You may see just how diverse and useful our state flower is to the wildlife in our state.




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