What is the Sagebrush Sea?

The Sagebrush Sea, scientifically, if less poetically known as “sagebrush steppe,” is a vast, beautiful and diverse landscape. The heart of the Sagebrush Sea is shaped by the Columbia River Basin, the Great Basin, the Wyoming Basin and the Colorado Plateau. Seemingly endless expanses of sagebrush define this ecosystem, and distinguishes it from Great Plains grasslands and the hot deserts of the Southwest. Writer Elizabeth Grossman captured the majesty of this landscape:

"The Sagebrush Sea is a landscape of dramatic contrasts and subtlety. While to some the dry, rocky hillsides and apparently endless bluffs of sage, juniper, piñon pine, mountain mahogany and bitterbrush appear monotonous and “barren,” they teem with wildflowers, aromatic and flowering shrubs, birds and a great variety of other animals. The Sagebrush Sea is expansive country. The horizon extends for 360 degrees and the sky arches high over cedar, mustard-yellow and sea green slopes. Pronghorn race across huge grassy basins and bighorn sheep balance on steep cliffs. The landscape features lakes, rivers, streams, springs and wetlands, hot springs, salt flats, dunes, volcanic rock formations and mountain ranges."

Sagebrush Sea pc Mark Salvo
Despite its size, the Sagebrush Sea is among the most imperiled ecosystems in North America. Sagebrush habitat has been reduced in area by as much as 50 percent since European settlement. Livestock grazing, gas and oil drilling, agriculture, roads, fences, powerlines and pipelines, off-road vehicle use, urban sprawl, mining, unnatural fire, and invasive weeds are destroying and degrading much of what remains. The mismanagement of sagebrush habitats threatens watersheds, lessens opportunities for sustainable enterprise, negatively affects recreation, and imperils hundreds of species, including greater sage-grouse and Gunnison sage-grouse.

Most of the Sagebrush Sea is publicly owned in the United States. The Bureau of Land Management controls approximately 50 percent of remaining sagebrush steppe. The Forest Service manages eight percent and western states own five percent of the Sagebrush Sea. Despite majority public ownership, less than five percent of sagebrush habitat on federal public land benefits from some (often very minimal) level of federal protection.

WildEarth Guardians Sagebrush Sea Campaign focuses public attention and conservation resources on protecting and restoring the vast sagebrush steppe in the American West. The campaign participates in public lands management planning, advocates for natural resource protection, and uses education, research, legislation and litigation to conserve and restore the Sagebrush Sea for present and future generations.

Rachel Carson quote