Sagebrush Ecosystems' Sayonara?
Moreover, the combined effect of unnaturally hot and destructive fires, pollution, overgrazing, erosion, global warming related climate changes, off-road vehicle use, non-native invading floral species, drilling, or agricultural and urban development is to reduce many formerly huge sagebrush areas to isolated remnants, threatening their complete loss as well as that of the many associated species they sustain.
Despite sagebrush predating the present form of the Great Basin, the territory of this set of plants is now roughly that of the massive feature, covering approximately half of the western United States, though in places sagebrush plants extend into similar geographical areas of the Rocky Mountains and adjacent basins and plateaus.
The Great Basin is a gigantic arid region of some 190,000 square miles, believed to have had its origin in volcanic activity perhaps 30,000,000 years ago and further affected by subluxation, the formation of underground seas, their later exposure on the surface, major drainages, and the accumulation of mineral content.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Western hemisphere, Amerindians had multiple uses for sagebrush, for instance, for fuel, medicine, teas, purification rituals, and so forth. Other plants in the sagebrush ecosystem provided wood for bows, special rinses for hair washing, and chokeberries to eat. A sagebrush habitat also offered the Indians food via the abundant fauna species.
Occidentals, however, have generally treated sagebrush and related flora as weeds, perhaps mainly because cattle do not eat them, they can interfere with crop production, and conservationists seek to preserve them at the expense of unrestrained energy development.
A short-term, strictly utilitarian outlook may doom much of the recent habitat of the North American west. It is difficult to see how we shall ultimately be better off with the simpler ecosystem that may replace that now characterized by the sagebrush and its many associated flora and fauna species. However, no doubt in time old and new vegetation and creatures will adjust or evolve to the juniper and grassland areas which formerly supported sagebrush and its milieu. Ultimately, everything changes. It would be fascinating to see how the west of our nation may look a thousand, ten thousand, or a hundred thousand years hence and how or if we ourselves have adapted to the alterations we have helped create.
Sagebrush Steppe Treatment Evaluation Project. in SageSTEP, last updated in 2013;
Sagebrush: Species of the Week. in Elizabeth Enslin, July 22, 2009;
Sagebrush Steppe. in Sawtooth Botanical Garden, last updated in 2009;
Sagebrush Showdown. Keith Kloor in Audubon Magazine, last updated with the May-June issue, 2011.