Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Sagebrush, greater sage-grouse, and the occurrence and importance of forbs

November 1, 2016

Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt.) ecosystems provide habitat for sagebrush-obligate wildlife species such as the Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). The understory of big sagebrush plant communities is composed of grasses and forbs that are important sources of cover and food for wildlife. The grass component is well described in the literature, but the composition, abundance, and habitat role of forbs in these communities is largely unknown. Our objective was to synthesize information about forbs and their importance to Greater Sage-Grouse diets and habitats, how rangeland management practices affect forbs, and how forbs respond to changes in temperature and precipitation. We also sought to identify research gaps and needs concerning forbs in big sagebrush plant communities. We searched for relevant literature including journal articles and state and federal agency reports. Our results indicated that in the spring and summer, Greater Sage-Grouse diets consist of forbs (particularly species in the Asteraceae family), arthropods, and lesser amounts of sagebrush. The diets transition to sagebrush in fall and winter. Forbs provide cover for Greater Sage-Grouse individuals at their lekking, nesting, and brood-rearing sites, and the species has a positive relationship with arthropod presence. The effect of grazing on native forbs may be compounded by invasion of nonnative species and differs depending on grazing intensity. The effect of fire on forbs varies greatly and may depend on time elapsed since burning. In addition, chemical and mechanical treatments affect annual and perennial forbs differently. Temperature and precipitation influence forb phenology, biomass, and abundance differently among species. Our review identified several uncertainties and research needs about forbs in big sagebrush ecosystems. First, in many cases the literature about forbs is reported only at the genus or functional type level. Second, information about forb composition and abundance near lekking sites is limited, despite the fact that lekking sites are an important center of Greater Sage-Grouse activity. Third, there is little published literature on the relationship between forbs and precipitation and between forbs and temperature, thereby limiting our ability to understand potential responses of forbs to climate change. While there is wide agreement among Greater Sage-Grouse biologists that forbs are an important habitat component, our knowledge about the distribution and environmental responses of forb species in big sagebrush plant communities is limited. Our work for the first time synthesizes the current knowledge regarding forbs in sagebrush ecosystems and their importance for Greater Sage-Grouse and identifies additional research needs for effective conservation and management.

Publication Year 2016
Title Sagebrush, greater sage-grouse, and the occurrence and importance of forbs
DOI 10.3398/064.076.0307
Authors Victoria E. Pennington, Daniel R. Schlaepfer, Jeffrey L. Beck, John B. Bradford, Kyle A. Palmquist, William K. Lauenroth
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Western North American Naturalist
Index ID 70178990
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center