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A Wild Landscape

Dominated by aromatic big sagebrush, this ecosystem is home to more than 400 species of plants and 250 wildlife species.

The sagebrush steppe offers a unique habitat for area wildlife.

Sagebrush Steppe


1. High Desert

The sagebrush steppe, a Russian word meaning treeless plain, is a temperate, semi-arid landscape of shrubs and widely-spaced bunchgrasses.

Scarcity of water-coupled with cold winters; hot, dry summers and dramatic daily and seasonal temperature swings-places severe constraints on plants and animals.

Average precipitation     8 inches/year

Typical summer highs   90 to 95°F (32 to 35°C)

Typical winter lows        10 to 30°F (-10 to -1°C)

Elevation                       Around 4,900 feet (1,500 m)

2. The Quest for Water

With an average elevation of 4,900 feet (1,500 m), this area is at a northern tip of the largest desert in the United States, the Great Basin Desert. Winter on the steppe is cold and windy with soils remaining frozen, and snow on the ground for three months or more. Most precipitation comes in the form of snow, which can accumulate in drifts that last into late spring.

In water-limited ecosystems, surface waters like the Big Lost River can increase plant and animal diversity. Riparian areas provide additional moisture for wetland plants, cottonwood trees for nesting raptors, and habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds and even trout. The Big Lost River probably flowed here year-round before upstream diversions reduced flows to the lower river. It now remains dry most of the year.

3. Amazing Animals

Indigenous pronghorn are perhaps the fastest animals in the world. Cheetah and pronghorn have both been clocked at more than 60 mph, but beyond sprinting, pronghorn can sustain speeds above 30 mph for miles.

4. More Diverse than Meets the Eye

Dominated by aromatic big sagebrush, this ecosystem is home to more than 400 species of plants that provide habitat for 250 wildlife species including mule deer, pronghorn, sage grouse, burrowing owls, pygmy rabbits and even elk.

Some animals of the sagebrush steppe require sagebrush to survive. For some, sagebrush is a food source, especially in winter, when many plants are covered by snow. For others, sagebrush provides protective cover.

Examples of "sagebrush obligate" species are pygmy rabbits, sage grouse, sage thrashers, sage sparrows, sagebrush voles and sagebrush lizards.


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Department of energy

DOE Office of Nuclear Energy
DOE-Idaho Office