Fun Fact Friday: A Natural Winter Windbreak In Sagebrush

pronghorn in alpine glow - BLM Cody Office Lisa MarksJanuary 9, 2017

Photo of a pronghorn in the alpine glow of sagebrush country. By Lisa Marks, BLM Cody Field Office.

By Nancy Patterson, Public Affairs Specialist, Bureau of Land Management

This story first appeared here on BLM’s My Public Lands Tumblr

It’s blizzarding in sagebrush country! Negative temperatures, snowfall, and winds pull together for a threatening whiteout. What are wildlife to do out in the Big Empty to protect themselves from winter weather conditions? Let sagebrush come to the rescue!

While black-tailed prairie dogs hide out in their burrows during snowstorms and horned lizards move into hibernation, many of sagebrush country’s more than 350 species depend on lucky breaks among the shrubs for food and shelter.

Sagebrush have a long tap root, which helps secure it to the ground and draw water and nutrients from the soil. These nutrients enter the plant and some transpose to wildlife that eat their ever-verdant leaves. Mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and Greater sage-grouse all depend on this food source in winter months.

Pockets form in the snow around sagebrush plants, creating shelter for small animals during harsh winter weather conditions.

Pockets form in the snow around sagebrush plants, creating shelter for small animals during harsh winter weather conditions. Photo by Nancy Patterson, BLM

On the surface, sagebrush’s round form and dense branches create perfect protection from harsh conditions on the range. As the wind whips across the landscape, snow blows and catches on windbreaks created by the sagebrush. There the snow drops, creating drifts.

Little pockets and hollows form between the drift and sagebrush canopy. These make safe protected shelters for sagebrush voles, rabbits, Greater sage-grouse and other small animals of the ecosystem. And even people have used this tool when they’ve been out on cold, windy days and needed shelter. Sagebrush delivers in times of need.

When you’re out exploring sagebrush country this winter, stay bundled up and keep your eyes alert for windswept snow shapes! You may just spot a sagebrush windbreak, catch a glimpse of an animal hunkered underneath its shelter, or watch an ungulate munch on its evergreen leaves. Keep exploring!

Pockets form in the snow around sagebrush plants, creating shelter for small animals during harsh winter weather conditions.

Sagebrush leaves provide food for all sorts of wildlife when other plants are covered in snow, including these mule deer. Photo by Tom Koerner, USFWS.

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The Sage Grouse Initiative, led by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America's western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.

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