Desert Habitat


March 12, 2002

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What's in a desert?

What do you think about when you say the word "desert?" Do you think about miles and miles of sand dotted with big, tall cactus? Do you think about high bare sandstone bluffs and tall spires of rock that Wiley Coyote and Roadrunner will jump from behind? Well, that's one type of desert and it's usually found in the Southwestern United States. But, we are talking about a different kind of desert. It's one that's all around us in Southern Idaho. It's called sagebrush steppe. Sagebrush Steppe Map

Sagebrush steppe includes the Great Basin sagebrush desert to the south of us covering much of Nevada and Utah, northeastern California, southeastern Oregon, and western Wyoming. This desert is the largest of four in North America, much of it above 4,000 in elevation. It is a cold desert characterized by cold winters and hot summers. Snow is a common sight in the winter, and moisture is limited to about 4 to 12 inches a year.

As you drive through this area, you are met with mile after mile of low, mounding gray-green shrubs with bunchgrasses, some perennial and annual plants, and a few and cactus mixed in. To some people, it's a boring landscape. For those who understand and appreciate sagebrush ecology, it's fascinating and beautiful.

Southwest Idaho Desert Communities

To say that all the sagebrush steppe country is the same overall would be a very incorrect statement. On the contrary, this country contains a wide variety of plant species. This variety, in large part, is due to different types of soil, elevation, and precipitation levels as well as current and past use patterns of animals (wild and domestic) and humans. An area that supports plant life and has one or more species of plants that dominates an area is called a plant community or vegetation type. These communities are usually named after the most abundant or dominant plant in the community. For example, in southwestern Idaho, commonly observed plant communities are Big Sagebrush, Salt Desert Shrub Mosaic, Green Rabbitbrush, Horsebrush, and Purple Sage. It should also be noted that wildfire has destroyed many remaining traces of the original plant communities over much of southwestern Idaho.

  • Salt Desert Shrub Mosaic
    This plant community lies between 2,200 and 2,800 feet and receives 7 to 10 inches of moisture a year. It includes the shrubs shadscale, winterfat, fourwing and Nuttall saltbush, and greasewood. The grasses that usually accompany these shrubs include Sandberg bluegrass and Bottlebrush squirreltail. The dominant shrubs occur in a complex mixture, or mosaic, in very dry areas, usually on lava plateaus. Plants are distributed by soil type and texture, available moisture and landforms.

  • Big Sagebrush
    This plant community lies between 2,200 and 4,000 feet in elevation and receives about 8 to 12 inches of moisture a year. Dominant plants include Wyoming and Great Basin big sagebrush An important grass, bluebunch wheatgrass, is also characteristic of this community. Other plants include Sandberg bluegrass, Bottlebrush squirreltail, and various wildflowers. This community is generally associated in moderately deep soil and more moisture than the salt desert shrub community described above.

  • Green rabbitbrush, Horsebrush, and Purple sage
    This type lies between 2,200 and 4,500 feet and also receives about 7 to 10 inches of precipitation a year. These three communities can commonly be found on old lakebeds. Each has an affinity to sand. Green rabbitbrush, horsebrush, and purple sage are neighboring communities that can be found within the salt desert shrub mosaic. Most of the smaller plants and grasses associated with the salt desert bush mosaic are generally found here as well.
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