Cherish The Soils And Roots That Support Life On The Range

Wildflowers on the range, like the balsam roots, lupine, and paintbrush pictured here, create healthy soils and keep water on the land. Photo: Brianna RandallMay 4, 2017

The roots of wildflowers on the range — like the balsamroot, lupine, and paintbrush pictured here — support a hidden world of living organisms that produce healthy soils. Photo by Brianna Randall. 

Nurturing native plants creates healthier soils and keeps water on the land for people and animals in the West

Drawing of lupine by Jeremy Maestas and Maja

Lupine drawing by Jeremy Maestas & Maja Smith.

Spring is a glorious time of year in sagebrush country. Wildflowers bloom, grasses turn green, and wildlife roams the warming range alongside livestock. Frozen ground thaws, and the moist soils produce colorful flowers, lush native bunchgrasses, and the iconic sagebrush that supports 350 species, as well as millions of acres of working lands.

It’s a good time of year to take notice of what’s beneath you: lupine and buckwheat, balsamroot and phlox paint the range in shades of blue, yellow, and pink. These native plants attract a variety of insects, which also pollinate the crops that feed us.

And what you see above the ground is only a fraction of the story. In the West’s sagebrush sea, most of the plant matter grows below your feet — think of it like an upside-down forest. The roots of those grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs help support a hidden world of living organisms that produce healthy soils, which are the backbone of all life on the range.

Billions of valuable organisms

linda poole msga girl with flowers

Photo by Linda Poole.

Soil is full of life. Billions of tiny organisms including bacteria, algae, earthworms, beetles, ants, mites, and fungi inhabit the dirt under your shoes. Combined, these diverse species represent the greatest concentration of living biomass anywhere on the planet. On just one acre of healthy land, 2,500 to 5,000 pounds of organisms may live in the top six inches of soil.
The organisms that create healthy soil keep our economy humming. The value of healthy soil has been estimated at $1.5 trillion a year worldwide, since it provides our food and helps store our water.

But like other living creatures, the organisms in the soil need food and shelter to survive. The unique root systems of diverse native plants growing on the sagebrush range provide both, nourishing the soils we all depend upon.

Soil snot

A few of SGI's Strategic Watershed Action Team get their hands dirty to test the soil in eastern Montana.

A few of SGI’s Strategic Watershed Action Team get their hands dirty to test the soil in eastern Montana.

Roots encourage nutrient cycling through the system by putting carbon—the currency for all life—back into the ground. Soil microorganisms that are fed with organic matter (like roots!) secrete a gooey protein called glomalin as they decompose plant residues. This biological “snot” acts like glue, helping microscopic soil particles stick together.

Healthy soils look and feel a lot like cottage cheese: full of holes, like a sponge, and soft and crumbly when held in your hands. Picture pulling carrots out of your garden—healthy soil sticks to the vegetables in clumps.

These clumps in soil give it better structure, which allows water and air to trickle through.
Unhealthy soils—like bare ground without native plants growing on top—act more like cement. Without soil organisms creating “snot” and pore spaces, water runs right off the top rather than penetrating down deep into the ground.

Rangeland water cycle

This thriving sagebrush landscape in the Centennial Valley of Mountain includes big sagebrush, Idaho fescue, and Indian paintbrush. Photo: Jeremy Roberts.

Mountain snow melts each spring, feeding streams and wet meadows that become hubs for wildlife and livestock during the dry summer. Photo: Jeremy Roberts.

In the West, most of our freshwater comes in the form of snow. As warmer spring temperatures melt snowpack in the mountains, the water ideally seeps into soils, where it fuels plant growth, provides reliable streamflows, and recharges vital wet mesic habitats long into the dry summer. If spring snowmelt can’t infiltrate the soil, it runs off the top, instead, leading to potential flooding or erosion problems as well as drier soils later in the season.

On average, sagebrush systems receive only 12 inches of precipitation each year. With such a scarce and vital resource at stake, we need as much water as possible to go into the soil. That’s where roots come in, giving soil structure that makes space for the water to infiltrate and slowly make its way through the watershed, benefiting wildlife, livestock and people along the way.

By keeping soil healthy and moist longer, the root systems of native plants help support wildlife, boost drought resilience, rebound from wildfires, resist weeds, and improve forage for livestock.

How you can foster healthy soils

While you’re enjoying the colorful bloom on the range this spring, take a moment to think about what’s happening below your feet. Improving the soil that sustains us is as easy as keeping our sagebrush rangelands intact and ensuring land management practices promote the health and diversity of our native plant communities.

Since 2010, the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative, has partnered with thousands of ranchers to conserve more than 5 million acres of sagebrush rangeland. We help ranchers manage for diverse plant communities through a variety of cost-share programs and one-on-one technical assistance. In turn, sustainable grazing practices promote healthy roots, providing better feed for livestock and improving the soil below their hooves.

To help demonstrate the importance of conserving our western roots, SGI offers free posters and postcards for our partners. Order these beautiful resources today, or print them yourself here! Our accompanying roots webpage offers more resources explaining why roots matter, and how to take care of the ground that supports wildlife and working lands across the West.

More resources

>> SGI ‘Roots’ webpage

>> Download posters or postcards:

>> NRCS Soil Health webpage

 

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.