The Role of Sand Sagebrush in Prairie Grasslands

Prairie Profile: Sand Sagebrush (Artemisia filifolia)

Wherever loose, sandy soils occur in the Southern Great Plains, there’s a good chance you’ll find sand sagebrush growing. Roll its gray-green foliage between your fingers, and you’ll catch the spicy aroma of a plant that’s an important part of the prairie community—one that benefits livestock and wildlife alike.

Sand sagebrush (photo: Dwayne Elmore)

Sand sagebrush (photo: Dwayne Elmore)

Sand sagebrush prairie (photo: Dwayne Elmore)

Sand sagebrush prairie (photo: Dwayne Elmore)

Sand sagebrush covers some 15 million acres of the Southern Great Plains and grows throughout the lesser prairie-chicken’s range. In this drought-prone region, sand sagebrush creates conditions that help the prairie community weather dry times. Its deep roots can draw water from as much as 30 feet below ground and redistribute it near the soil surface, where it’s available to grasses and forbs. These extensive roots also anchor sandy soils, limiting wind erosion and creating a stable growing site for other prairie plants.

In winter, the branches of sand sagebrush trap snow, which returns moisture to the surrounding soil when it melts. These branches create a shelter from summer sun and wind for the many species of grasses and forbs that thrive in sandy soils.

Lesser prairie-chicken chicks take refuge in sand sagebrush (photo: David Haukos).

Lesser prairie-chicken chicks take refuge in sand sagebrush (photo: David Haukos).

Many animals depend on sand sagebrush as well. For lesser prairie-chickens, sand sagebrush offers cover for hiding and nesting, protection from extremes of heat and cold, and a winter food source. Scaled quail, northern bobwhite, Cassin’s sparrow and many other grassland birds rely on sand sagebrush as well—studies have shown a decline in bird diversity and abundance when sand sagebrush is removed from prairie grasslands (Rodgers and Sexson, 1990).

The sand sagebrush ecoregion is one of four vegetative community types within the lesser prairie-chicken’s range. In the 1970s, this ecoregion was home to more lesser prairie-chickens than any of the other three ecoregions. According to surveys in 2014, this ecoregion now holds the smallest number of lesser prairie-chickens of the four ecoregions (McDonald et al. 2014). Carefully planned conservation practices can help restore sand sagebrush prairie habitat for the benefit of both prairie wildlife and cattle. Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative funding helps landowners plan and carry out these practices.

Managing Sand Sagebrush with Prescribed Fire and Grazing

Historically, fire and periodic intensive grazing by bison shaped sand sagebrush rangelands. Fire burns back old sand sagebrush plants and releases the grasses and herbs that have grown up in the shrub’s shelter. Well-adapted to fire, sand sagebrush resprouts vigorously after a burn, quickly establishing hiding cover for prairie wildlife.

Prescribed fire and sustainable grazing practices mimic this natural dynamic and are excellent

Lighting a perimeter fire during a prescribed burn, Kansas (photo: Sandra Murphy)

Lighting a perimeter fire during a prescribed burn, Kansas (photo: Sandra Murphy)

resource conservation tools for ranchers in sand sagebrush habitat. Fire stimulates not only the resprouting of sand sagebrush, but also the vigorous regrowth of grasses and forbs. Cattle focus their grazing on this lush, newly burned land, giving less recently burned areas of the range a rest from grazing. Carefully planned burning and grazing create the mosaic of habitat structure that lesser prairie-chickens and other prairie wildlife need. In addition, fire helps reduce the extent of eastern redcedar, which can quickly overtake prairie grasslands when fire is excluded.

If you’re a landowner in the lesser prairie-chicken action area, contact your local NRCS field office for information about the conservation assistance programs available for improving the health and productivity of sand sagebrush habitat.