SPECIES: Artemisia tridentata subsp. vaseyana
|Western juniper/mountain big sagebrush woodland in Harney County, Oregon. Photo courtesy of the PRBO Conservation Science Shrubsteppe Monitoring Program.|
Johnson, Kathleen A. 2000. Artemisia tridentata subsp. vaseyana. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online].
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service,
Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer).
Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ .
mountain big sagebrush
The currently accepted scientific name of mountain big sagebrush is Artemisia tridentata ssp. vaseyana (Rydb.) Beetle (Asteraceae) [5,31,56].
There are 2 other widely distributed subspecies of big sagebrush (A. tridentata): basin big sagebrush (A. t. subsp. tridentata) and Wyoming big sagebrush (A. t. subsp. wyomingensis) [8,56,64]. There is substantial overlap in the distribution of big sagebrush species, and the 3 major subspecies sometimes tightly co-occur . It is difficult to distinguish among them without chemical or molecular analysis [8,74,133,145]. Mountain big sagebrush contains chemical constituents that allow it to be distinguished from the other 2 major subspecies when subjected to an ultraviolet light test . Morphological characteristics, especially leaf and shrub shape, have been relied upon to distinguish among big sagebrush subspecies [5,31,56]. Hybridization within these 3 subspecies of big sagebrush has been confirmed [42,43,46,73,74,115].
In addition to the 3 major subspecies mentioned above, at least 2 other subspecies of big sagebrush with limited distributions are recognized: A. t. subsp. parishii  and A. t. subsp. xericensis . Each is commonly known as big sagebrush. Snowfield big sagebrush has been classified both within the big sagebrush complex (A. t. subsp. spiciformis) [45,64] and as a distinct species (A. spiciformis) .
In this report, the name "big sagebrush" is used when discussing the big sagebrush species complex. Infrataxa including mountain big sagebrush are referred to by the subspecific common names used above. Because the International Botanical Congress no longer recognizes varieties or forms of subspecies, forms and varieties within the vaseyana subspecies are treated here as A. t. subsp. vaseyana. For more information about the species complex, please refer to the FEIS reports for other subspecies.
No special status
Mountain big sagebrush occurs from southern British Columbia and Alberta south to California, northern Arizona and northern New Mexico, west into central Oregon and Washington, and east into Montana, Wyoming and Colorado [11,53,56,71,86,97]. Small populations of mountain big sagebrush have been reported as far east as the Dakotas and Nebraska [5,47,61].
FRES21 Ponderosa pine
FRES26 Lodgepole pine
FRES30 Desert shrub
FRES34 Chaparral-mountain shrub
FRES36 Mountain grasslands
5 Columbia Plateau
6 Upper Basin and Range
8 Northern Rocky Mountains
9 Middle Rocky Mountains
10 Wyoming Basin
11 Southern Rocky Mountains
12 Colorado Plateau
K005 Mixed conifer forest
K008 Lodgepole pine-subalpine forest
K010 Ponderosa shrub forest
K011 Western ponderosa forest
K012 Douglas-fir forest
K015 Western spruce-fir forest
K018 Pine-Douglas-fir forest
K019 Arizona pine forest
K020 Spruce-fir-Douglas-fir forest
K022 Great Basin pine forest
K023 Juniper-pinyon woodland
K024 Juniper steppe woodland
K026 Oregon oakwoods
K028 Mosaic of K002 and K026
K032 Transition between K031 and K037
K037 Mountain-mahogany-oak scrub
K038 Great Basin sagebrush
K055 Sagebrush steppe
K056 Wheatgrass-needlegrass shrubsteppe
K063 Foothills prairie
208 Whitebark pine
210 Interior Douglas-fir
211 White fir
218 Lodgepole pine
219 Limber pine
220 Rocky Mountain juniper
237 Interior ponderosa pine
238 Western juniper
247 Jeffrey pine
256 California mixed subalpine
101 Bluebunch wheatgrass
102 Idaho fescue
104 Antelope bitterbrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
105 Antelope bitterbrush-Idaho fescue
107 Western juniper/big sagebrush/bluebunch wheatgrass
109 Ponderosa pine shrubland
110 Ponderosa pine-grassland
209 Montane shrubland
302 Bluebunch wheatgrass-Sandberg bluegrass
303 Bluebunch wheatgrass-western wheatgrass
314 Big sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
315 Big sagebrush-Idaho fescue
316 Big sagebrush-rough fescue
317 Bitterbrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
318 Bitterbrush-Idaho fescue
319 Bitterbrush-rough fescue
320 Black sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
321 Black sagebrush-Idaho fescue
322 Curlleaf mountain-mahogany-bluebunch wheatgrass
324 Threetip sagebrush-Idaho fescue
401 Basin big sagebrush
402 Mountain big sagebrush
403 Wyoming big sagebrush
404 Threetip sagebrush
405 Black sagebrush
406 Low sagebrush
408 Other sagebrush types
411 Aspen woodland
412 Juniper-pinyon woodland
413 Gambel oak
415 Curlleaf mountain-mahogany
416 True mountain-mahogany
504 Juniper-pinyon woodland
509 Transition between oak-juniper woodland and mahogany-oak association
Mountain big sagebrush occurs, often as a dominant in shrublands or codominant in savannah, over a range of habitats from montane parklands to warm desert fringes in western North America. This species is a common component of shrub patches in arid grasslands [60,70,89,108,127]. It occurs widely throughout Great Basin pinyon-juniper woodlands
dominated by true pinyon (Pinus edulis), singleleaf pinyon (P. monophylla), and Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) . Mountain big sagebrush has been reported in association with numerous other tree species, including quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides)
[20,26,87,89], ponderosa pine (P. ponderosa) [53,60,100,108], lodgepole pine (P. contorta) [6,26], Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) [53,100], limber pine (P. flexilis) [6,53,100,101], subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) , and whitebark pine (P. albicaulis) [6,90,122]. Mountain big sagebrush may also occur in association with white fir (A. concolor) and Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii) .
Common plant associates in Idaho and Montana include Wood's rose (Rosa woodsii), mountain snowberry (Symphoricarpos oreophilus), green rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus), antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), and Rocky Mountain juniper. Associated grasses and forbs include Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata), Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis), cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), prairie Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) green needlegrass (Nassella viridula), needle-and-thread grass (Hesperostipa comata), Sandberg bluegrass (Poa secunda), and bottlebrush squirreltail (Elymus elymoides) [63,70,84,147].
Common associated species reported for central and eastern Oregon and Washington are western juniper (J. occidentalis), ponderosa pine, Wyoming big sagebrush, gray low sagebrush (A. arbuscula ssp. arbuscula), antelope bitterbrush, wax currant (Ribes cereum), Idaho fescue, bottlebrush squirreltail, bluebunch wheatgrass, Sandberg bluegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, basin wildrye (Leymus cinereus), and cheatgrass [28,108,127,148].
In Wyoming sagebrush steppe communities, mountain big sagebrush is commonly associated with Idaho fescue, antelope bitterbrush, needle-and-thread grass, spike fescue (Leucopoa kingii), sulphur eriogonum (Eriogonum umbellatum var. subalpinum) and silvery lupine (Lupinus argentius) [6,19,20].
Mountain big sagebrush is the most common sagebrush in the extensive Great Basin pinyon-juniper woodlands [123,144]. Associated species include true pinyon, singleleaf pinyon, ponderosa pine, Utah juniper, Rocky Mountain juniper (J. scopulorum), and Jeffrey pine (P. jeffreyi). Associated shrub species include Wyoming big sagebrush, basin big sagebrush, antelope bitterbrush, Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii), black sagebrush (A. nova), gray low sagebrush, and desert peach (Prunus andersonii). Associated genera include Chrysothamnus, Symphoricarpos, Cercocarpus, Ceanothus, Arctostaphylos, Physocarpus, Ribes, Rhus, and Purshia. Associated grasses are numerous, including Columbia needlegrass (Achnatherum nelsonii ssp. dorei), bottlebrush squirreltail, Sandberg bluegrass, bluebunch wheatgrass and cheatgrass [118,121,122,123,144,154].
Publications listing mountain big sagebrush as a dominant, codominant, or indicator species include the following:
Plant communities and habitat types in the Lava Beds National Monument, California 
Sagebrush-steppe habitat types in northern Colorado: a first approximation 
Grassland, shrubland, and forestland habitat types of the White River-Arapaho National Forest 
Sagebrush-grass habitat types of southern Idaho 
Plant associations of Region Two: Potential plant communities of Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas 
Plant communities of the Similkameen Valley, British Columbia 
A preliminary classification of high-elevation sagebrush-grass vegetation in northern and central Nevada 
Aspen community types on the Caribou and Targhee National Forests in southeastern Idaho 
A preliminary classification and characterization of big sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata Nutt., communities in central Montana 
Shrub-steppe habitat types of Middle Park, Colorado 
Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata vaseyana) and longleaf snowberry (Symphoricarpos oreophilus) plant associations in northeastern Nevada 
Grassland and shrubland habitat types of the Shoshone National Forest 
Taxonomic and ecological relationships of the big sagebrush complex in Idaho 
Sagebrush steppe 
Reliance on the big sagebrush ecosystem by many wild animals for both food and cover has been documented and reviewed extensively [11,57,77,91,96,98,111,129,137]. Wildlife researchers have argued that the importance of sagebrush as forage, and effects of foraging on sagebrush are not fully appreciated [130,131,140]. Big sagebrush is eaten by domestic sheep and cattle, but has long been considered to be of low palatability to domestic livestock, a competitor with more desirable species, and a physical impediment to grazing [11,33,111].
Wambolt [130,131] studied elk and mule deer preference for the 3 big sagebrush subspecies and black sagebrush. The study was conducted annually for 10 years on 2 sites in Yellowstone National Park. Each year approximately 2,500 leaders on 244 plants were examined for browsing. The percentage mountain big sagebrush leaders utilized during a given winter was as high as 91%. In all cases, mountain big sagebrush was used more than the other 3 taxa, with an average of 56.1% use. In 16 of the 20 samplings, use of mountain big sagebrush was significantly (P < 0.05) greater than that of Wyoming big sagebrush, the second most preferred taxon, which had an average of 38.6% use. Differences in preference among taxa were smallest during severest winters when more elk were present on the site.
Welch and Wagstaff  noted that mountain big sagebrush is a highly preferred and nutritious winter forage for mule deer. They argued that "The perception that big sagebrush is largely unsuitable and unused is due to low palatability to cattle and its ability to quickly mask evidence of use." The "Hobble Creek" low elevation, USDA cultivar  of mountain big sagebrush is preferred by both wintering domestic sheep and mule deer. The cultivar has not been found to contain substances that negatively influence preference or suppress grass cell wall digestion in ruminants [138,139,140].
The Hobble Creek cultivar of mountain big sagebrush is a highly preferred sagebrush that exceeds most other winter forage values in energy, protein, phosphorus, and carotene. Winter crude protein content of the cultivar is 10%-11% of dry matter, winter in vitro digestibility is 52.6% of dry matter, winter phosphorus level is 0.21%, and total winter monoterpenoid content is 2.09%. A study comparing mule deer preference for the Hobble Creek cultivar against antelope bitterbrush indicated that mean usage did not differ after the first 2 measurements, but was significantly higher (P < 0.05) for the 2 final measurements. The sagebrush cultivar was significantly more digestible than antelope bitterbrush, and significantly higher in crude protein and phosphorus [138,139,140].
|upland game birds||-||good||good|
Mountain big sagebrush is easily propagated from seed under greenhouse, nursery, and common garden conditions [37,53,69,106,150,152] and has been
successfully seeded directly into field sites [26,30,65,106,111,152].
The temperature for drying seeds for storage should not exceed 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60oC). Humidity control is important for seed storage and should not exceed 32 to 40% [135,137]. Seed life in storage is about 5 years [111,137].
Mountain big sagebrush has also been successfully planted in field sites using nursery-grown bareroot and containerized stock [38,59,65]. After 3 years, percent survival of outplanted containerized seedlings in a Nevada study was as high as 80% in some plots . Mountain big sagebrush has been propagated by tissue culture with limited success .
Please refer to the General Botanical Characteristics section of this report for more information about mountain big sagebrush regeneration.
Cotts and others  included mountain big sagebrush in a detailed study of revegetation methods for abandoned roads in Grand Teton National Park. They tested 14 treatments. After 2 growing seasons, treatments that included the addition of topsoil (collected locally), followed either by natural colonization of mountain big sagebrush, or seeded with locally collected seed from the same year, had much greater percent plant cover (P=0.05) than various other treatments. The most successful treatment, producing 7.3% cover, was a combination of vegetation removal, substrate scarification, topsoil application, and phosphorus application. Application of locally collected seed alone, following vegetation removal, produced a cover of 0.3%. Application of commercial seed alone following vegetation removal produced only a trace of mountain big sagebrush cover. Sites treated with a combination of locally collected seed with topsoil increased plant cover compared to various treatments without topsoil. More notably, mountain big sagebrush was the most dominant species to naturally colonize nonseeded, topsoiled treatments.
There is evidence that mountain big sagebrush is not aided by the addition of supplemental water and/or fertilizer under field conditions. In a Wyoming study where researchers applied water and ammonium nitrate to transplants on a reclaimed strip mine (regraded with original topsoil), for 3 successive years, there was no significant increase (P=0.05) in aboveground biomass .
Native peoples used big sagebrush leaves and branches for medicinal teas, and the leaves as a fumigant. Bark was woven into mats, bags and clothing .
The ecology of mountain big sagebrush in the West has been altered by post-settlement increases or decreases in historical fire intervals and livestock grazing, widespread invasion by exotic annuals, and perhaps climate change [11,23,83,143]. Historical abundance of big sagebrush has been disputed. According to reviews [7,143] and a comparative examination of 20 historical photos from 3 states , big sagebrush was abundant and codominant with perennial bunchgrasses in pre-settlement times. Sagebrush species do not appear to have increased their range on a large scale, but reviewers agree that big sagebrush has increased in density in many places in response to excessive grazing and altered fire regimes. Regarding the sagebrush steppe ecosystem, West  makes the following remark: "Some of it has been so degraded by excessive livestock grazing and burning that its relationship to its origins is no longer easily recognizable."
Important management considerations in sagebrush ecosystems include wildlife use, livestock grazing and overgrazing, fire frequency and hazard, exotic plant invasion and conversion of the ecosystem to other uses. Blaisdell and others  provide an extensive review and guidelines for integrating multiple uses of the sagebrush grasslands, including determining range condition and trend, and controlling sagebrush.
Perryman and Olson  argue that sagebrush control decisions are typically based on characteristics such as canopy cover, but should instead be based on ecologically based community-successional criteria. To aid managers they used annual growth rings to develop a quantitative model of age-stem diameter relationships for the 3 subspecies of big sagebrush. They sampled 75-80 stem cross-sections within 9 stands in regionally dispersed locations across Wyoming. Using the model, managers should be able to quickly assess the age (and perhaps successional status) of big sagebrush stands based on the stem diameter of large individuals. Stand age could then be compared with fire frequency information to determine if control practices should be implemented.
Because mountain big sagebrush often co-occurs with Wyoming big sagebrush and basin big sagebrush, please refer also to the Management Considerations section in FEIS reports for those subspecies.
Mountain big sagebrush is a long-lived (50+ years), woody, aromatic, native, evergreen shrub [7,11]. Shrubs often appear flat-topped from a distance because of the nearly equal height of flowering stalks . The fruit is a small, easily shattered cypsela that falls or is blown near the parent plant [111,151]. Root length of mature plants was measured to a depth of 6.5 feet (2 meters) in alluvial soils in Utah . Greenhouse-grown plants had roots 26.8 inches (68 cm) long at 6 months . Mountain big sagebrush roots are colonized by fungi that form symbiotic vesicular-arbuscular mycorrhizae [24,121]. Aboveground tissues host an unidentified, pathogenic snowmold fungus that decreases shrub cover and productivity [55,92].
Mountain big sagebrush usually flowers in late summer and fall, but some strains may flower as early as July. Seed matures from September through October . Mature seeds fall or are blown from inflorescences during autumn and winter and emergence occurs in winter or spring [75,80,151]. Seeds are short-lived (less that 5 yr in warehouse) and probably do not form a persistent seed bank [82,151]. Average annual seed production in western Nevada was 29 pounds per 2.5 acres (1.3 kg/0.1 ha) over a 4 year period .
Recently harvested seeds are nondormant but require light for germination . Cold, moist conditions and exposure to light increase germination [75,76,82]. Germination response varies between populations of mountain big sagebrush growing in different habitats. Meyer and others [80,81,82] observed strong, significant correlations (P < 0.05) between percent germination and climate variables (light and cold). Seed collections from habitats with long, severe winters germinated slowly and incompletely, whereas seed collections from sites with shorter, milder winters germinated rapidly and completely.
Results of a western Nevada seed bank study showed the number of (greenhouse) germinable seeds of mountain big sagebrush decreased sharply as winter progressed and fell below detectable levels by June. Seeds did not persist in the soil seed bank. For 4 consecutive years there were no detectable seed reserves in the soil from June to November. Dispersal began in December and hundreds of newly dispersed mountain big sagebrush seeds were counted in seed traps near individual plants. Seedling emergence in the study plots began in February, but all seedlings died by June. No successful seedling establishment of mountain big sagebrush (nor basin big sagebrush) was observed in any of the permanently marked plots during the 4 years of the study .
To examine yearly variation in germinability, Harniss and McDonough  quantified percent germination in unstratified, laboratory-germinated seeds collected from the same 10 plants of mountain big sagebrush for 3 consecutive years. They detected no significant (P < 0.05) year-to-year difference in average germination, which ranged from 11% to 17%.
Mountain big sagebrush can reproduce vegetatively by layering [7,8,53,71]. It does not resprout when aboveground tissues are killed by fire or other means [10,11,94].
In the Intermountain west, mountain big sagebrush usually occurs in the upper elevational range of the big sagebrush zone in montane valleys and on foothills, slopes and high ridges [5,6,11,71,148]. In northerly parts of its range, this species occurs in mountain valleys and on mountain slopes and ridges as high as 9,840 feet (3,000 m) . It has been reported as low as 2,600 feet (780 m) in Idaho. West and others  report that although mountain big sagebrush is the most common sagebrush in the Great Basin pinyon-juniper woodlands, only the wettest and coolest areas of the higher and larger mountain masses have mountain big sagebrush in their woodlands. Soils are moderately deep, well-drained, slightly acid to slightly alkaline and characterized by late-melting winter snow cover and summer moisture [6,11,19,20,71,124,144]. This shrub grows in full sun but tolerates shade, often occurring in association with mature conifers [96,144].
In a landscape-scale study in Wyoming, soils in topographic depressions occupied by mountain big sagebrush had higher organic matter, nutrients and microbial biomass than soils in more exposed (windblown) areas occupied by other vegetation, including basin and Wyoming big sagebrush. The effect was attributed to greater snow accumulation, leading to greater plant and litter biomass accumulation [19,20,21].
Elevations reported in the literature are as follows:
4,500 to 7,400 feet (1,370-2,255 m) in Arizona 
5,905 to 9,840 feet (1,800-3,000 m) in California [56,118]
7,760 to 8,480 feet (2,365-2,585 m) in Colorado 
2,560 to 8,990 feet ( 780-2,740 m) in Idaho [71,146]
3,770 to 7,810 feet (1,150-2,380 m) in Montana and British Columbia [3,68,78,97]
5,445 to 10,170 feet (1,660-3,100 m) in Nevada [82,118,121,124,154]
3,500 to 9,000 feet (1,066-2,740 m) in Oregon 
7,250 to 8,040 feet (2,210-2,450 m) in Wyoming[20,25,29]
4,690 to 8,990 feet (1,430-2,740 m) in Utah [26,82]
On a geologic time scale, the big sagebrush species have probably reached their maximum post-glacial spread .
According to Bunting  and references therein, most recent research indicates that big sagebrush is the climax species on its present-day range, and that invasion into other types is uncommon. Alterations of historic fire regimes have resulted in major successional changes in regions dominated by mountain big sagebrush and other sagebrush species, and the introduction of exotic annual grasses has modified the role of fire. In general, fire is less common, but in some cases it is more frequent.
In some areas, especially where fire suppression has been a factor, stands of mountain big sagebrush are being invaded by juniper woodlands [17,23,83], lodgepole pine  and Douglas-fir .
In the juniper woodlands of southern Idaho, western juniper has invaded large areas of mountain big sagebrush shrubland. Burkhardt and Tisdale [22,23] reviewed possible causes, including destruction of grassland via livestock grazing, increased seed dispersal by sheep, climate change and a reduction of the historic fire return interval. In field sites they examined seed dispersal mechanisms, fire history, and juniper seedling establishment, and concluded that succession of sagebrush-grass shrublands to juniper woodlands is directly related to cessation of periodic fires. In the same region, Hironoka and others  identified 10 climax habitat types dominated by mountain big sagebrush. Please see the Fire Ecology section of this report for more discussion of the Burkhardt and Tisdale study.
Beetle and Johnson  determined that most big sagebrush stands in Wyoming, including mountain big sagebrush, probably represent edaphic or topographic climax. Evidence indicates that stands were historically self-replacing after fire. In that area, mountain big sagebrush replaces pioneer grassland communities. Lodgepole pine, and occasionally Douglas-fir, were observed encroaching into established stands of mountain big sagebrush [6,7].
In Eastern Oregon and Washington, mountain big sagebrush forms climax shrub communities with snowberry, elk sedge, and Idaho fescue. Mountain big sagebrush climax shrublands occur in association with ponderosa pine and western juniper .
In southern British Columbia mountain big sagebrush sometimes dominates within openings in subalpine fir forests. These communities are characterized as edaphic climax .
Mountain big sagebrush is reported to have "a tendency" to increase in plant density or foliar cover following disturbance [57,146,147]. Beetle and Kendall  reported mountain big sagebrush has more potential for increasing in density than any other sagebrush species.
Please refer to the Fire Effects section of this report for information about short and long term responses of mountain big sagebrush to stand-replacing fires.
A study of sagebrush phenology in southern Idaho  showed marked differences in dates and rates of development among taxa. Mountain big sagebrush began growth approximately 2 weeks later and ripened seed at least 2 weeks earlier than basin and Wyoming big sagebrush. Blaisdell and others  reported that some strains of mountain big sagebrush start blooming as early as July, and that seed matures from September through October.
Generalized findings for mountain big sagebrush derived from the Idaho study are as follows :
|late June||early shoot development|
|early July||medium shoot development|
|mid-July||full shoot development|
|mid- to late July||flowerheads green|
|early August||flowerheads yellow|
|late September||seeds ripe|
|Old burn line seperating mountain big sagebrush and bluebunch wheatgrass communities, Lassen County, California. Photo courtesy of the PRBO Conservation Science Shrubsteppe Monitoring Program.|
FIRE REGIMES:: Presettlement fire return intervals in mountain big sagebrush communities varied from 15 to 25 years [22,155,157]. For example, mountain big sagebrush sites in southwestern Idaho show evidence of about 3 to 5 fires per century prior to 1910 . Very frequent fire suppresses mountain big sagebrush establishment, while long fire return intervals promote tree invasion into mountain big sagebrush communities. Arno and Gruell  considered average fire intervals of about 20 years sufficient to control mountain big sagebrush invasion in southwestern Montana grasslands. In the photo above, fire mortality has removed mountain big sagebrush from the foreground, creating a shrub-grassland mosaic.
Fire exclusion has led to invasion of mountain big sagebrush communities by western juniper [22,156,157]. Mountain big sagebrush can be a nurse plant for western juniper. On a southeastern Oregon site, less than 20% of western juniper seedlings established in the open; the rest were under mountain big sagebrush or low sagebrush plants . Sparse under presettlement fire frequencies of 15 to 25 years, western juniper has formed dense stands on former mountain big sagebrush communities in the Great Basin [22,156,157]. Miller and others  found that on southeastern Oregon and northeastern California sites, mountain big sagebrush cover declined to 80% of maximum potential as western juniper cover increased to 50% of maximum canopy cover. Herbaceous cover and species diversity declined, and bare ground cover increased, with increasing western juniper dominance. Burkhardt and Tisdale  concluded that fire frequencies of 30 to 40 years would control western juniper expansion onto mountain big sagebrush communities.
Fire regimes for communities in which mountain big sagebrush occurs are summarized below. Find further fire regime information for the plant communities in which this species may occur by entering the species name in the FEIS home page under "Find Fire Regimes".
|Community or Ecosystem||Dominant Species||Fire Return Interval Range in Years|
|sagebrush steppe||Artemisia tridentata/Pseudoroegneria spicata||20-70 |
|basin big sagebrush||A. t. var. tridentata||12-43 |
|mountain big sagebrush||A. t. var. vaseyana||15-40 [3,23,156]|
|Wyoming big sagebrush||A. t. var. wyomingensis||10-70 (40)** [128,149]|
|California montane chaparral||Ceanothus and/or Arctostaphylos subsp.||50-100 |
|curlleaf mountain-mahogany*||Cercocarpus ledifolius||13-1000 [4,110]|
|mountain-mahogany-Gambel oak scrub||C. l.-Quercus gambelii||< 35 to < 100|
|western juniper||Juniperus occidentalis||20-70|
|Rocky Mountain juniper||J. scopulorum||< 35|
|Engelmann spruce-subalpine fir||Picea engelmannii-Abies lasiocarpa||35 to > 200|
|pinyon-juniper||Pinus-Juniperus subsp.||< 35|
|whitebark pine*||P. albicaulis||50-200 |
|Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine*||P. contorta var. latifolia||25-300+ [2,107]|
|Colorado pinyon||P. edulis||10-49|
|Jeffrey pine||P. jeffreyi||5-30|
|Pacific ponderosa pine*||P. ponderosa var. ponderosa||1-47|
|Rocky Mountain ponderosa pine*||P. p. var. scopulorum||2-10|
|Arizona pine||P. p. var. arizonica||2-10 |
|quaking aspen (west of the Great Plains)||Populus tremuloides||7-120 [16,48,79]|
|mountain grasslands||Pseudoroegneria spicata||3-40 (10)** |
|Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir*||Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca||25-100|
|oak-juniper woodland (Southwest)||Quercus-Juniperus subsp.||< 35 to < 200 |
Fire adaptations: Mountain big sagebrush is readily killed by fire and requires
at least 15 years to recover
after fire . Postfire establishment is from
seed. Data from 1 study suggest that germination is stimulated by fire. Champlin  reported that
mountain big sagebrush seedling emergence under greenhouse conditions was greater in field-burned (in situ) soil samples than in unburned soil samples. By contrast, seedling emergence of Wyoming big sagebrush was reduced in burned soils. Possible explanatory mechanisms might be related to those explored by Blank and Young . They observed that smoke and compounds present in aqueous extracts of heated soils from beneath a sagebrush canopy increased the emergence of common associated plant species, though big sagebrush seeds were not among those tested.
There is other evidence that mountain big sagebrush seed germination and survival in the field may be quite low following fire. Please refer to the section titled Discussion and Qualification of Plant Response in the Fire Effects section of this report.
Ground residual colonizer (on-site, initial community)
Initial off-site colonizer (off-site, initial community)
Mountain big sagebrush plants top-killed by fire will not resprout [10,94].
Regeneration of mountain big sagebrush is from on-site or off-site seed. Depending on circumstances of the environment and seed source, mountain big sagebrush seeds may sprout profusely the spring after burning [27,103], or very sparsely [10,50,67]. These relationships are not well understood. Seedlings can grow rapidly and may reach reproductive maturity within 3 to 5 years . Where mountain big sagebrush is dominant and persistent (climax or long-term seral), fire often reduces its dominance and alters species composition for the first few years. If exotic species have not altered successional pathways, vegetation eventually reverts to its previous composition [1,11,17,88,94].
Early Response - Mountain big sagebrush regeneration from seed varies in the 1st postfire year. A high elevation (7,200 feet (2,200 m)) shrub-grass community in western Wyoming was burned in September, 1983, and evaluated 1 year later. The fire completely eliminated mountain big sagebrush cover on 50% of the site. Mean density of mountain big sagebrush seedlings on burned, east-slope plots was as high as 1,090 per acre (2,691/ha), compared to 97 seedlings per acre (240/ha) on paired, unburned plots. Measurements on west-facing slopes were impaired by sampling difficulties .
In contrast to the Wyoming study, Young and Evans  found no germination stimulating effect following wildfire in a stand of mountain big sagebrush in western Nevada. The August fire consumed all standing woody material. In September of the same year they collected 1000 soil samples from the interior of the burn and subjected them to a greenhouse germination test. No sagebrush germinated in any samples. At the end of the growing season following the fire, mountain big sagebrush seedlings in the field site were detected at a density of 4/acre (10/ha.).
Also in contrast to the Wyoming study, managers in California burned a high elevation meadow (8,202 feet (2,500 m)) to reduce shrub encroachment. The following spring only trace numbers of new mountain big sagebrush seedlings were present. Mature shrub species were replaced by an early seral grass-forb community .
Response Over Time - Mountain big sagebrush may return to preburn density and cover within 15-20 years following fire, but establishment after severe fires may proceed more slowly . On some sites mountain big sagebrush may recover slowly in the first years after fire. A southern Idaho sagebrush steppe site experimentally burned in August, 1936, was studied in subsequent decades [10,11,52]. The site was identified as a mountain big sagebrush habitat type, free of cheatgrass. The burned area was protected from grazing for a year following burning and grazed conservatively thereafter. To the advantage of desirable forage species, big sagebrush was practically eliminated, and reestablishment was slow during the first 9 years, but during the next 18 years big sagebrush cover increased greatly. Researchers' summary statements are excerpted here:
"Almost all important species of shrubs, grasses and forbs decreased in yield from 1948 to 1966 as the big sagebrush recovered its dominance after the burn...From observation, sagebrush in the vaseyana habitat type sometimes reinvades an area immediately following a burn; so control benefits do not always exist as long as they have on the 1936 burn. The length of time between control measures depends on grazing practices and the undefined weather variables that favor sagebrush seedling survival and establishment" .
Fraas and others  quantified the effects of prescribed fire on vegetation 8 years after burning in an antelope bitterbrush-mountain big sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass community in Montana. Mountain big sagebrush canopy cover and stem density in the burned plot remained low. Both parameters were significantly greater (P < 0.01) in the unburned plot, indicating a high fire-induced mortality coupled with lack of postburn seedling establishment.
The Research Project Summary Vegetation response to restoration treatments in ponderosa pine-Douglas-fir forests of western Montana provides information on prescribed fire and postfire response of plant community species, including mountain big sagebrush, that was not available when this species review was written.
Prescribed fire can be an economically and ecologically sound method for meeting management objectives [11,17,18]. Low fine fuel loading is a common problem. Burning sagebrush shrubland may not result in intended increases in grass and forb production, but may instead result in unplanned and detrimental shifts in plant community composition. Concentrated large herbivore use should be expected and included in the planning process [17,40].
Fire does not result in substantial increases of herbaceous perennials on sites dominated by exotic annuals. The fuel load may be sufficient in such sites to sustain a fire, but the presence of annuals may prevent the establishment of perennial species. Annuals often increase following a fire, creating conditions where wildfires occur more frequently. Frequent fires prevent the reestablishment of shrubs and may reduce the existing perennial herb populations. Increasing the interval between fires allows time for perennials to establish, breaking the weed-perpetuating fire cycle .
In an Idaho prescribed burn conducted in winter, individual mountain and Wyoming big sagebrush plants burned easily when canopy fuel moisture was below 37%, air temperature was above freezing, relative humidity was below 45%, and skies were clear. In that study, only small areas burned because the canopy was not dense enough to carry fire. Where canopy cover was at least 50%, distance between plants was not greater than 50% of their average height, and effective wind speed was above 5 mph (8 km/hr), the fire carried successfully . Britton and others  developed a big sagebrush canopy cover-herbaceous fuel load curve representing proportions of big sagebrush cover and herbaceous fuels needed to produce a successful burn.
Several monographs provide detailed information about managing fire in sagebrush. One of the monographs  provides information specific to mountain big sagebrush. The other 3 discuss mountain big sagebrush, but recommendations are general in scope, extending to other species of sagebrush.
Managing Intermountain rangelands--sagebrush-grass ranges 
Fire response of shrubs of dry forest habitat types in Montana and Idaho 
Guidelines for prescribed burning in sagebrush-grass rangelands in the northern Great Basin 
Fuel and fire behavior prediction in big sagebrush 
Please refer to other FEIS reports for discussions of fire management considerations for important co-occurring species, including Wyoming and basin big sagebrush, bitterbrush subsp., bunchgrasses, and junipers. Related fire case studies for Wyoming big sagebrush and basin big sagebrush are available in the FEIS reports for those species.
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