Sagebrush – love it or hate it… you’ve gotta respect it

Dr. Dennis Knight at the University of Wyoming (now retired) once used that phrase to describe the impressive ecological qualities of sagebrush (Artemisia spp.). In western North America, sagebrush grows in challenging environments characterized by low levels of precipitation. Several species of sagebrush anchor the sagebrush sea (also an excellent PBS NATURE program by the same name) and a lot of things eat it, nest in it, and use it for cover. Sagebrush mortality has recently been reported in the Upper Green River Basin (Wyoming, USA) and I am collaborating with a number of folks to understand the extent, severity and timing of the mortality event.

Sagebrush mortality in southwestern Wyoming. Photo: June 2015.

Numerous causes have been suggested, but recent drought in 2012-13 (see figure below) is the likely mechanism of mortality in this water-limited ecosystem. We will be using a time series of satellite images to gain an understanding of the variability in patterns of vegetation productivity during periods of high, low and average precipitation. Our goal is to use this information to exploit landscape scale remote sensing for detection of subtle changes in productivity in this sparsely vegetated ecosystem to detect sagebrush mortality.

Partial sagebrush mortality in southwestern Wyoming (6 inch field notebook for scale). Photo: July 2016.

If you have any information about sagebrush mortality or questions about our current research, please contact me.

More to come…

Self-calibrating Palmer Drought Severity Index (sPDSI) for the Upper Green River Basin. Data source: Western Regional Climate Center, WestWide Drought Tracker,; accessed 14 Oct 2016.


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