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Montana Field Guides

Low Sagebrush Shrubland

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Provisional State Rank: S4
* (see reason below)

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State Rank Reason
The area of occupancy may be overestimated in ReGAP, as it is difficult to distinguish this specific ecological system from other sage types with a low-growth habit. However, it appears to be reasonably widespread.
 

General Description

This system is composed of dwarf sagebrush shrubland and shrub-steppe that forms matrix vegetation and large patches on the margins of high-elevation basins. It occurs in southwest and south-central Montana on sites that are gently to moderately sloping, particularly on dry, windswept hills and ridges that may be oriented to any aspect. Elevation ranges from 1,143 meters (3,750 feet) in the Pryor Mountains and 1,219 meters (4,000 feet in) the Canyon Ferry area and up to 2,195 meters (7,200 feet) in southwestern Montana. Typical sites are gently rolling hills and long, gently sloping pediments and fans. These sites are very windy and have shallow, often rocky soils. Rock and gravel cover much of the unvegetated ground surface, with some bare ground and litter. In Montana, soils are typically silts or clays, shallow to moderately deep, and derived from limestone parent material. The distinguishing feature of this system is a short-shrub stratum in which dwarf-shrubs (<30 centimeters tall) contribute at least two-thirds of the woody canopy. Black sage (Artemisia nova) is usually dominant in this system. In southwestern Montana, little sagebrush (Artemisia arbuscula ssp. arbuscula and ssp. longiloba) is dominant, found on restrictive clay soils that inhibit root depth and create a perched water table. Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. wyomingensis) can be present within this system.The herbaceous component includes both rhizomatous and bunchgrasses, cushion plants, and other low-growing forbs. This system is characterized as steppe vegetation, occurring in areas where precipitation is limiting for tree growth.


Diagnostic Characteristics

steppe,shrub dominated, lowland and foothill elevations, hills, sideslopes, ridge/summit/upperslope, silt and clay soil texture, shallow aridic soils, low (less than 30 cm tall) xeromorphic shrub heights, low-growing Artemisia species


Similar Systems

Range
This system occurs in southwest and central Montana. At the northern end of its range, it occurs on the north flank on the Elkhorn Mountains near Helena. It is well represented in the Tobacco Root and Ruby Mountains, and occurs in other scattered locations in southwestern Montana. It is found on the eastern flanks of the Beartooth range on outwash fans and lower slopes, and the southerly-facing flank of the Pryor Mountains.

Ecological System Distribution
Approximately 102 square kilometers are classified as Low Sagebrush Shrubland in the 2013 Montana Land Cover layers.  Grid on map is based on USGS 7.5 minute quadrangle map boundaries.



Montana Counties of Occurrence
Big Horn, Broadwater, Carbon, Cascade, Deer Lodge, Gallatin, Granite, Jefferson, Judith Basin, Lewis and Clark, Meagher, Park, Powder River, Powell, Ravalli, Silver Bow, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Wheatland, Yellowstone

Spatial Pattern
Large or Small Patch

Environment
This system occurs in southwest and south-central Montana on sites that are gently to moderately sloping, especially on dry, windswept hills and ridges that may be oriented to any aspect. Elevation ranges from to 1,143 meters (3,750 feet) in the Pryor Mountains and 1,219 meters (4,000 feet in) the Canyon Ferry area and up to 2,195 meters (7,200 feet) in southwestern Montana. Soils are shallow, gravelly and are often high in calcium carbonate. Rock and gravel cover much of the unvegetated ground surface, with some bare ground and litter. In Montana, soils are typically shallow to moderately deep, rapidly drained and derived from limestone. This system also occurs on granitic intrusions with overlying calcareous substrates. Soils are usually silts or clays. In southwestern Montana, soils are clays with a restrictive layer that inhibits root growth and creates a perched water table.

Vegetation

This system is characterized as steppe vegetation, occurring in areas where precipitation is limiting for tree growth. Vegetation is characterized by a low-shrub canopy dominated by black sage. In Montana, the black sage dominated steppe system grades into the Rocky Mountain Limber Pine-Juniper Woodland system in central and southern Montana.

Other shrubs are generally present, although with very low cover, including green rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus), little sagebrush (Artemisia arbuscula ssp. longiloba), spiny hopsage (Grayia spinosa), snowberry (Symphoricarpos longiflorus), and broom snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae). In southwestern Montana, little sagebrush is the dominant low shrub. Wyoming big sagebrush can be present within this system on some occurrences. In these cases, this system can grade into or be interpreted as Big Sagebrush Shrubland.

Graminoids usually dominate the diverse herbaceous layer, with bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata) being the most common. Other species present can include Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides), threadleaf sedge (Carex filifolia), slender wheatgrass (Elymus trachycaulus), needle and thread (Hesperostipa comata), prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii) and Sandberg’s bluegrass (Poa secunda). The invasive cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) frequently invades this system. Forb cover is generally low and includes cushion species and other low forbs such as Hood’s phlox (Phlox hoodii), tapertip hawksbeard (Crepis acuminata), milkvetch (Astragalus species), stemless mock goldenweed (Stenotus acaulis), spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa), boreal sagewort (Artemisia frigida), and mariposa lily (Calochortus species).


Alliances and Associations
Alliances
  • (A.2552) Alkali Sagebrush Shrub Herbaceous Alliance
  • (A.2549) Alkali Sagebrush Shrubland Alliance
  • (A.1105) Black Sagebrush Shrubland Alliance
  • (A.2547) Dwarf Sagebrush Shrubland Alliance
  • (A.832) Wyoming Big Sagebrush Shrubland Alliance

Dynamic Processes
This association usually occurs in a patchy mosaic with other types of sagebrush shrublands. Black sage and little sagebrush shrublands generally occur on the driest, most windswept sites with the shallowest soils relative to shrublands dominated by other sagebrush species. This species is easily killed by fire at all intensities, and when exposed to fire, plants do not re-sprout (Wright et al, 1979). Heavy grazing practices also lead to a decrease in associated grasses and an increase in the spread of cheatgrass. Sites invaded by cheatgrass are changing the dynamics of this system by increasing fire potential, severity and spread.

Management
Excessive grazing can result in the demise of the most common perennial grasses in this system and lead to an abundance of cheatgrass.

Species Associated with this Ecological System
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (high, medium, or low) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2001, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species’ range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of “observations versus availability of habitat”.
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were associated as using an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  High, medium, and low habitat quality was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species in the literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignments of habitat quality.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact Bryce Maxell at bmaxell@mt.gov or (406) 444-3655.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: http://mtnhp.org/requests/default.asp) or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species’ known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2001.  The wild mammals of Montana.  Special Publication No. 12.  Lawrence, KS: The American Society of Mammalogists.  278 p.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana’s amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Original Concept Authors
Natureserve Western Ecology Group

Montana Version Authors
L.K. Vance, T. Luna

Version Date
2/19/2010

References
  • Classification and Map Identifiers

    Cowardian Wetland Classification: Not applicable

    National Vegetation Classification Standard:
    Class Semi-Desert
    Subclass Cool Semi-Desert Scrub and Grassland
    Formation Cool Semi-Desert Scrub and Grassland
    Division Western North America Semi-Desert Scrub and Grassland
    Macrogroup Western North America Dwarf Sage Shrubland and Steppe

    NatureServe Identifiers:
    Element Global ID 28630
    System Code CES304.794, Wyoming Basins Dwarf Sagebrush Shrubland and Steppe

    ReGAP:
    5209: Wyoming Basins Dwarf Sagebrush Shrubland and Steppe


  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View WorldCat Record   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • Aguirre, Lucrecia, and Douglas A. Johnson. 1991. "Influence of Temperature and Cheatgrass Competition on Seedling Development of Two Bunchgrasses". Journal of Range Management. 44 (4): 347-354.
    • Harris, G. A. 1967. Some competitive relationships between AGROPYRON SPICATUM and BROMUS TECTORUM. Ecological Monographs 37:89-111.
    • Mueggler, W. F. and W. L. Stewart. 1980. Grassland and shrubland habitat types of western Montana. USDA Forest Service Gen. Tech. Rep. INT-66, Intermountain Forest and Range Exp. Sta., Ogden, Utah. 154 pp.
    • Wambolt, C. L., K. S. Walhof and M. R. Frisina. 2001. Recovery of big sagebrush communities after burning in southwestern Montana. Journal of Environmental Management 61: 243-252.

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Citation for data on this website:
Low Sagebrush Shrubland — Wyoming Basins Dwarf Sagebrush Shrubland and Steppe.  Montana Field Guide.  Retrieved on April 20, 2014, from http://FieldGuide.mt.gov/displayES_Detail.aspx?ES=5209
 
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