Historically, sagebrush communities have been poorly managed, mostly in attempts to reduce or eliminate sagebrush stands to increase forage production for livestock. Recently, however, the value of sagebrush to the western rangelands is being recognized, and practices are evolving to better manage healthy and productive sagebrush communities.
Contrary to long standing beliefs, studies show that complete sagebrush removal negatively affects biodiversity and has little long term affect on perennial grass production. Indeed, several studies indicate that forage production may actually decline when sagebrush is completely removed or controlled.
Overgrazing of the understory decreases plant biodiversity, especially the forb component of the plant community and increases the density of weeds. Annual weeds, such as cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum L.) and medusahead (Taeniatherum caput-medusae [L.] Nevski) often out-compete young sagebrush seedlings and create undesirable monocultures. Annual weed infestations also increase the frequency of wildfires which result in eliminating sagebrush stands therefore not allowing stand re-establishment.
Despite the many valuable benefits of sagebrush to rangelands, there may be cases when it is desirable to thin and rejuvenate sagebrush stands. In these instances it is not necessary to remove the entire stand, and control treatments in mosaic patterns are recommended. Several methods exist for partial removal of the shrubby over story.
Herbicide use is an effective means of thinning sagebrush stands. Contact your local agricultural extension specialist or county weed specialist to determine what works best in your area and how to use it safely.
Probably the simplest and most cost effective means of stand reduction is through prescribed burning. If there is sufficient fuel, a burn can completely eliminate a sagebrush community. For this reason niche burning is recommended when possible. In situations where cheatgrass is a dominant part of the understory, burning should take place when ripe cheatgrass seeds are still on the plants and will be consumed in the fire.
Methods of mechanical removal for sagebrush include anchor chaining, pipe harrowing, land imprinting offset disking and brush beating with brush hogs or mowers. Of these, chaining and land imprinting are the least expensive and do an excellent job of reducing sagebrush stands while still leaving enough plants for diversity and browsing. Brush beating does a good job, but it is expensive. Disking and harrowing also do a good job of shrub removal, but are more expensive and more destructive to under-story plant populations.
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