Promoting native plant health and diversity in the sagebrush sea benefits everyone

Why roots matter

The West’s sagebrush sea is under increasing pressure from extended droughts, large wildfires, and exotic weed invasions that threaten both wildlife and rural ways of life. Luckily, promoting healthy and diverse native plant communities with strong root systems provides a buffer against these threats.

Healthy soil literally provides the foundation for all life in the sagebrush ecosystem. Diverse native plants put down roots that protect our precious soils, help the land retain water, and support critical ecological functions and resilient landscapes.

SGI works with ranchers to keep working rangelands intact and conserve plant diversity in order to promote healthy roots. These root systems sustain wildlife and rural economies, paying dividends for current and future generations.

FREE RESOURCES – Discover the hidden world beneath our feet

These visuals give a glimpse of the sagebrush sea’s unique root systems:

Diverse native plant communities protect against erosion, store more water, and foster healthy soil

Rangelands are like an upside-down forest

On the sage-steppe, most of the plant matter grows below your feet. A healthy sagebrush plant community includes shrubs (like sagebrush), grasses (like bluebunch wheatgrass and Sandberg bluegrass) and forbs (like lupine, maiden blue-eyed Mary, and buckwheat). Scientists lump individual plant species into ‘functional/structural groups’ based on features they have in common, such as their shape above and below ground and how long they live.

Each type of plant uses a different strategy to take advantage of niches and resources on the sagebrush sea. For example, annual plants that live only one year ‘get rich quick’ by putting their energy into producing seeds instead of well-developed roots. Perennial plants that come up every year are ‘long-term investors’ that put down deeper roots, allowing them to ride out drought years.

Plants roots provide organic matter at a variety of depths, which helps feed billions of soil organisms and assists in essential water and nutrient cycling that drives land productivity. For instance, some species, like lupine, help fix nitrogen in the soil, which in turn nourishes other plants.

How’s the land faring?

SGI’s new poster and postcard are designed to rekindle conversations about the importance of taking care of plant health and diversity, above and below ground. Other tools are available to help landowners and partners assess landscape health and determine what plants to expect on individual sites.

>> Ecological Site Descriptions (ESDs) provide detailed information on the types and amounts of native vegetation that a site can support based on soils, climate, and other properties, as well as how those sites typically respond to management and disturbance.

>> Rangeland Health Assessment is an inventory tool that can be used with ESDs to assess how well a particular site is functioning relative to site capacity.

Helping sage grouse conserves our roots

ron francis nrcs - jay tannerGood for the bird and good for the herd

Since 2010, the Sage Grouse Initiative, led by the USDA-NRCS, has partnered with more than 1,800 ranchers to conserve more than 7 million acres of the sagebrush sea. To help sage grouse, ranchers manage for healthy, abundant native plant communities. In turn, these management practices provide better feed for livestock while improving the soil below their hooves.

For instance, when plant communities are diverse and strong, they are better poised to out-compete invasive weeds like cheatgrass, which degrade sage grouse habitat and decrease forage. SGI works with ranchers to:

>> Implement prescribed grazing strategies to promote plant health and productivity by adjusting timing, intensity and duration of livestock use based on plant needs.

>> Remove encroaching conifers to prevent the loss of native understory shrubs, grasses and forbs that would have otherwise been crowded out.

>> Control weeds and seed new plants to restore healthy plant communities on degraded land.

>> Secure conservation easements to permanently protect intact native range.


>> Diverse composition and structure in the plant community helps the land capture, store, and safely release rain and snow.

>> Healthy plant communities allow moisture to more easily infiltrate into the soil, reduce runoff, and help plants bounce back more quickly from drought.

Learn More: Grazing and Drought



>> Plant diversity increases the amount of living roots in the soil, which in turn boosts organic matter that feeds microbial activity essential to proper nutrient and water cycling.

>> An appropriate mix of functional/structural groups, determined based on the Ecological Site Description, helps to maintain critical ecological processes above and below ground.

Learn More: NRCS Soil Health Campaign: Unlock the Secrets in the Soil



>> Abundant and diverse plant communities fill niches in the environment that might otherwise be open for weed invasion.

>> Perennial grasses are particularly important for resisting invasive weeds like cheatgrass because native grasses have a fibrous root system that can out-compete invasive species.

Learn More: Putting Resilience and Resistance Concepts into Practice



>> More than 350 species of plants and animals call the sagebrush ecosystem home.

>> Sage grouse rely on sagebrush for food and cover throughout the year, while grasses and forbs help conceal nests from predators and feed growing chicks during breeding and brood-rearing seasons.

Learn More: Sage Grouse and Mule Deer and Songbirds


REBOUND FROM WILDFIREresist wildfire in sagebrush sea

>> Plant composition and abundance prior to a fire are key drivers of land resiliency post-fire.

>> Managing for a diversity of plants with healthy roots increases the odds that burned areas can rebound favorably and more quickly on their own without costly seeding.

Learn More: Great Basin Fact Sheets – Post-Fire Recovery in the Sage Steppe

linda poole msga girl with flowers


>> Native rangelands are the lifeblood of livestock ranching in the West.

>> Promoting healthy plants, especially perennial grasses, ensures working rangelands will continue to provide for current and future generations.

Learn More: Rancher Profile – Dick Fleming, Eastern Oregon


Learn how to foster diverse, healthy plant communities near you: