Sagebrush Steppe overrepresentation

In recent years there has been more interest and acknowledgement of things like human development, agriculture, grazing etc. changing biomes. For example, how the southeast US use to have more grasslands and prairies that are now forests.

There are certain areas in the west (particularly southwest), that lately I’ve been wondering if Sagebrush is maybe overrepresented. I know in some areas Sagebrush steppe is endangered, or threatened, but I could also see Sagebrush becoming more common in an area due to development and overgrazing pushing out more sensitive species. I’m a bit rambly, but I was just curious if there is any research or professional opinions on this.

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Sagebrush is a slow growing plant that is outcompeted by rabbitbrush, saltbush, Russian thistle, and cheatgrass in areas of grazing and land development in New Mexico. Once it’s destroyed, the resulting noxious weeds and soil erosion seem to prevent Artemisia tridentata from reestablishing.

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Indeed, but from my experience it is less fragile than many other desert shrubs like ephedra, yuccas, and small cactus’ like Escobaria. So I was just wondering if there is any evidence that certain areas have turned more so into a Sagebrush steppe, that used to be more diverse.

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Depends where you are? Yucca readily fill up disturbed areas in southern New Mexico and grow back from root fragments better than a lot of plants.

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As a possible example, here’s a shot of a location closer in town to me. You can see it is dominated by Sagebrush and little else. I would assume this area has had more traffic or disturbance in some capacity being in town.

Here’s a further few miles away, and you can see it’s a more general desert scrub with Junipers, Sagebrush, Cactus’, Yuccaas, Rabbitbrush and more.

Maybe I’m just overthinking or something, but like I said I was just wondering how possible it is that the former could be a more degraded area and Sagebrush is just the last to hold on.

Your second example is all sand and sandstone, which is not sagebrush habitat. They like clay and silt, relatively rich soils.


Both areas are composed largely of sandstone and sandy clay. Even then, the exact location isn’t the point, they’re just illustrations of the general idea I’m contemplating.

Yes I was going to comment on that. I’m sure there may be many factors at play, but all else being equal, the distribution of different soils and how well certain species are adapted to them will certainly play a role.

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To be clear, I think this is a good question to debate. Do cattle preferentially graze on Artemisia? What does untouched sagebrush steppe look like? What areas of the west are naturally this habitat type now vs 500 years ago vs 500 years in the future (hotter and drier should work against Artemisia tridentata in the southwest USA)?

Having personally evaluated soil on a range of undeveloped sites in the northern New Mexico for solar fields, there is a clear correlation for clayey sand to lean clay with Artemisia abundance. That’s what you find in the southern Jicarilla Apache Nation, but not in the Shiprock area, for example.

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