The Incredible Benefits of Sagebrush and Juniper in the West

Sagebrush steppe habitat on the Columbia Plateau. Photo: USFWS.

Although millions of acres of juniper trees and sagebrush have already been eradicated in the western United States, federal and state land management agencies continue to log and burn these incredibly important native ecotones to increase grass for cows. A closer look at the benefits of sage-juniper communities explains why Native Ecosystems Council and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies are challenging yet another sage-juniper “burn and log” proposal in Montana’s Elkhorn Mountains.

The Elkhorn Mountains are an isolated and unique mountain range of about 250,000 acres of public land located 16 miles southeast of Helena, Montana where the government is required to emphasis healthy wildlife and fish habitats above everything else.

Juniper woodlands have a well-established unique value to wildlife, in part because they are a long-lived, stable ecosystem. They only burn every 400-450 years on average and since Europeans first settled this landscape in the mid-1880s and have not yet altered the juniper fire cycle in the Elkhorns, it means that the juniper woodlands there would not be expected to burn for several hundred years.

There is no other conifer species that rivals the dense foliage provided by juniper trees, which provide hiding and thermal cover for elk and deer as well as high-quality cover for birds during bad weather, including heavy rainstorms in the summer, and fall/winter/spring snow storms.

Juniper woodlands in landscapes like the Elkhorn Mountains have been documented to provide breeding habitat for at least 43 species of birds including at least 12 that have been identified as Montana Species of Concern. These include the Lark sparrow, Loggerhead shrike, Brewer’s sparrow, pinyon jay, Cassin’s finch, sage thrasher, sage sparrow, Clark’s nutcracker, Ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, northern goshawk, and flammulated owl. Importantly, the Loggerhead shrike and Lark sparrow have been recently included in the top 20 declining bird species in the U.S.

Another unique value of juniper trees is their production of up to 20,000 juniper berries per meter squared. Theses berries provide a high energy food source for wildlife in the fall when insects have died out and are also available to birds in the winter in spite of deep snows.

The extremely popular use of juniper berries by birds results in a constant “raining” of juniper seeds by birds outwards from juniper woodlands while jackrabbits can disperse 310,000 juniper berries (seeds) per acre in the winter that, in turn, create new juniper seedlings.

What land managers have recently labeled with the pejorative term “encroaching conifers” is actually a natural process of adaptation. This natural progressive spread of juniper trees from older junipers is clearly evident in the Elkhorns with young juniper trees common near, as well as interspersed with, the more mature juniper trees.

The damage to wildlife from slashing and burning juniper trees is exacerbated by the burning of sagebrush, which commonly provides the fuel to get juniper trees to burn in prescribed fires.

Like juniper trees, sagebrush provides stable habitat for wildlife, as these shrubs can live up to 200 years. Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has identified 7 amphibian/reptile species, 24 mammal species, and 41 bird species that use sagebrush habitats.

Because fires in sagebrush are relatively infrequent, the mixture of juniper trees and sagebrush together ensures high quality habitat for a huge number of wildlife species is available over time. In addition to providing nesting sites, sagebrush forage is also consumed by pygmy rabbits and mule deer. And for birds, an acre of sagebrush habitat may provide up to 20 million seeds during a good year.

Removing these habitats is clearly not beneficial to a vast array of wildlife, which is why Native Ecosystems Council is fighting in court to preserve these valuable native ecosystems for future generations.

Dr. Sara Johnson was a wildlife biologist for the Forest Service for 14 years and is currently the Director of Native Ecosystems Council in Willow Creek, Montana.