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Science-based guidelines for restoration and conservation of sagebrush ecosystems

Date: September 18, 2015


Sagebrush communities are the cornerstones of arid ecosystems in the West, mitigating soil erosion, fostering plant and animal biodiversity, storing carbon, and providing cover and forage for wildlife, such as the greater sage-grouse. However, these ecosystems are being compromised by increased fire frequency and climate change, coupled with encroachment of invasive plants.

Winter mortality of big sagebrush not adapted to colder areas of the species distribution (photo by Bryce Richardson, RMRS)
Winter mortality of big sagebrush not adapted to colder areas of the species distribution (photo by Bryce Richardson, RMRS)
Subsequently, post-fire restoration has become a fundamental component for maintaining ecosystem function and resiliency in these communities. Knowledge of how plants are adapted to their environments is fundamental to ecological restoration and mitigating impacts from climate change.


This research focuses on ecological genetics of big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), which is under threat principally from wildfire and exotic weed encroachment. Conserving and restoring big sagebrush is critical for the recovery of sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) and other sagebrush-dependent wildlife species. Our goal is to provide management tools to promote successful restoration by: 1) predicting the geographic areas where contemporary and future climates are suitable for this species, 2) developing empirical seed transfer zones, and 3) developing subspecies diagnostic tests to improve seed purity.

Key Findings

  • Climate change is projected to have a large impact on sagebrush ecosystems. Projections show that approximately one-third of the climatic niche of Wyoming sagebrush will be lost by 2050.
  • Populations of big sagebrush are adapted to local climates, specifically cold temperatures. Movement of seed should be restricted to prevent maladaptation.
  • Seed weight can be used to differentiate co-occurring subspecies of big sagebrush. Weighing can be used as a seed certification step for evaluating subspecies composition of seed intended for restoration.

Featured Publications

Principal Investigators: 
Forest Service Partners: 
Nancy L Shaw, RMRS Research Botanist emeritus
Francis F Kilkenny, RMRS Research Geneticist
External Partners: 
Joshua A Udall, Lindsay Chaney, Department of Plant and Wildlife Sciences, Brigham Young University
Matthew J Germino, U.S. Geological Survey, Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center