Sagebrush (genus Artemisia) is one of the most common and recognizable plants on Colorado’s Western Slope and arid Great Plains. A woody, fragrant, faded-green bush, sagebrush is ubiquitous throughout drier parts of the American West, covering some 106 million acres of the region. This makes sagebrush a keystone species that anchors the largest interconnected wildlife habitat in the United States.
Sagebrush is an important part of Indigenous culture and spirituality. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the stubborn bush gave white immigrants fits as they tried to till the soil in arid places such as Moffat County. Today, Colorado’s sagebrush ecosystem and the creatures that depend on it, including the sage grouse, face threats from invasive species, development, and wildfire.
Several different types of sagebrush occur in Colorado. The most common are subspecies of the big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), which typically grow between two and four feet tall but can reach heights of up to fifteen feet, depending on available moisture. They have woody stems that grow dozens of small branches. As with many other species of Artemisia, big sagebrush has thin, silvery-green leaves whose tips are shaped like tiny, three-fingered mittens. A big sagebrush can live between 100 and 150 years, far longer than other similarly sized shrubs. The plant produces small, pale yellow flowers that bloom in late summer.
Other sagebrush varieties in the state include the low sagebrush (A. arbuscula), which in Colorado is found only in Moffat and Saguache Counties; the fringe sage (A. frigida), a more common variety found across the state; and the sand sage (A. filifolia), which is common in the southern and plains counties.
To survive in harsh, arid environments, the sagebrush plant has two root systems: a sprawling set of roots branches laterally through the soil, while a tap root searches for deeper water sources. This robust root structure is what made plowing up large fields of sagebrush such a difficult task in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In Colorado, sagebrush covers thirty-nine contiguous counties in the western half of the state, representing about 5 percent of the total sagebrush land in the West. It is also present on the eastern plains, especially in the southern and southeast parts of the state.
The relatively high protein content of Artemisia leaves makes sagebrush an excellent forage shrub for browsers such as deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and jackrabbits. Some ranchers feed it to cattle as winter forage. Sagebrush helps chipmunks and other small creatures hide from predators, and it provides habitat for more than 100 species of birds, including the Sage grouse, which has been the focus of extensive conservation efforts in Colorado. In addition, sagebrush ecosystems support more than 130 other types of plants, including several species of Indian paintbrush, a bright red wildflower that taps into sagebrush roots. Grasses—including wheatgrass, bluegrass, and needlegrass—fill in the gaps between sagebrush.
Sagebrush was and remains an important part of Indigenous culture. Historically, the Paiute people in Utah fashioned clothing and snowshoes as well as several different types of seasonal shelters from sagebrush. Today the Paiute still include the plant in coming-of-age and other ceremonies and boil the leaves to make a medicinal tea. Navajo people use sagebrush to treat rheumatism and postpartum pain. The Ute people use the plant in similar ways and incorporate it in many stories. One story, recorded in the Southern Ute Drum in 2019, involves a young boy traveling through a “sagebrush forest” where he learns how his people used sage smoke to help communicate with restless ancestral spirits.
The US Army and white colonists forced most of the Ute population out of the state by 1882. To white immigrants who moved to western Colorado, sagebrush became a widely recognized symbol of the frontier that was, like Indigenous people, an obstacle to civilization. “The sagebrush is the outward symbol of the real United States West,” proclaimed Colorado’s Great Divide in 1918. That symbol may once have been “the buffalo or the Red Indian,” the newspaper claimed, “but all of these are numbered with the things of the past, or are slowly vanishing, while the sagebrush remains.”
White immigrants much preferred the fertile prairies of the eastern slope to the dry sagebrush country over the Continental Divide. In 1875 the Colorado Daily Chieftain mocked the perceived infertility of sagebrush country, inviting those who tired of Pueblo’s “grand and lovely” scenery to “take a stroll over the hills, and see how much sagebrush, cactus and cobblestones an acre of Colorado ‘adobe’ soil will produce.” In places where sagebrush dominated, like Moffat County, the bush was to be removed so that civilization’s standards could be met; the Craig Empire opined in 1916 that “getting rid of this sagebrush will be a good start” toward “beautifying Craig.”
Not all whites saw the sagebrush as a symbol of wilderness or unsettlement. The plant was considered such a routine sight that the town of Kit Carson adopted it as the mascot for its baseball team in the early 1870s. In those days, the plant was also an important fuel source for American cowboys. Sheep and sometimes even cattle grazed the tops of the hardy plants. By 1907—as more towns, farms, and ranches sprang up in sagebrush country across the state—some Coloradans were nostalgic for the “vanishing sagebrush.” As one newspaper put it, the plant’s “aroma” was one that “hint[ed] of the wild, free life of the range that will be no more.”
Plowing Sagebrush Country
However, immigrants to the relatively new town of Craig, drawn by the promise of the Moffat Road rail line, might have scoffed at the idea that sagebrush was vanishing. Owing to the plant’s strong root system, farmers around Craig had a tough time removing sagebrush until around 1915. That year, blacksmith Morgan C. French invented a “sage brush plow” that could tackle entire lots of the stubborn bush, making way for alfalfa and other traditional crops, as well as irrigation ditches. The invention weighed more than typical plows and used rotating, toothed disks to cut soil away from the sagebrush roots while sweeping the plants aside into the prongs of a metal rake, which left them neatly piled for collection or burning.
The Craig Empire considered French’s invention to be “one of the greatest Colorado has ever known.” However, most farmers eventually shifted to ranching, as they realized that the grasses growing in the sagebrush ecosystem made for excellent forage.
Management and Threats
As time went on, more Coloradans became aware of sagebrush’s importance to both ranching and the broader ecosystem. After the turn of the twentieth century, ranchers overgrazed on sagebrush range, depleting the natural supply of grasses and causing sagebrush to run rampant. Communities tried several solutions to reinvigorate the range. A 1931 article in the Craig Empire Courier urged locals to “burn sagebrush now to improve native ranges”—a recognition of fire’s ability to clear overgrown sage and make room for more grass.
After World War II, as chemicals became a major part of modern agriculture, the Bureau of Land Management sprayed 2, 4-D, a toxic herbicide, on overgrown sagebrush in Moffat County. The chemical killed the sagebrush and ushered in robust growth of wheatgrass, with unknown other ecological effects. Later, in 1961, researchers at the Colorado State University Extension recommended that ranchers spray or burn sagebrush in order to triple beef production on the range. More recent studies, however, recommend against complete removal of sagebrush because it reduces biodiversity and may ultimately result in poor production of forage grasses.
Today, Colorado’s sagebrush ecosystem is managed by a variety of local and federal agencies, including Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service, and the National Park Service. In addition to researching and protecting the plants and animals of sagebrush country, these agencies work with local ranchers to promote ecological balance on the range, using methods such as prescribed burns and restricted access to keep both sagebrush and forage plants available. The Southern Ute Tribe also has a Range Division that helps maintain its sagebrush.
Sagebrush country currently faces a number of human-wrought threats, including development, invasive species, and wildfire. Oil and gas pads, for instance, have been found to reduce local mule deer populations and other sagebrush species through noise pollution and habitat fragmentation. Still, a 2005 report from Colorado Parks and Wildlife named invasive herbaceous plants as the largest threat to the state’s sagebrush ecosystems. One of the most troublesome invaders is cheatgrass, which outgrows other grasses to dominate an area. Cheatgrass grows tall and is extremely flammable, making fire another premier threat to sagebrush country today.