Topic 5 Restoration of Sagebrush Ecosystems:
Land Management Tools

This section explores the tools available to land managers for restoration of sagebrush ecosystems. Scroll down the page to read each sub-section, or click the Land Management Tools drop-down navigation to go directly to a sub-section.


Begin by watching a video of Mike Pellant discussing how to improve the success of restoration efforts.



Techniques for Seeding and Establishing Sagebrush

This section explores techniques for seeding and establishing sagebrush. Explore each of the tabs.

Seeding considerations vary across ecological sites (Miller et al. 2014):

  • Native seeding success on severely depleted ecological sites with warm-mesic to mesic and dry-aridic (< 10 inches precipitation) soil temperature/moisture regimes is extremely low (cumulative soil temperature and moisture score < 10). Using introduced wheatgrasses or a half-shrub such as forage kochia can slightly improve seeding success on these sites but may not meet management objectives, although they can reduce the threat of fire and competition from invasive annual grasses.
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Miller et al. 2014, Figure 12A).

  • Seeding success on cool-mesic/aridic ecological sites (10 to 12 inches precipitation) is usually mixed, and is highly dependent on annual moisture in the first 2 to 3 years following treatment (score = 12-15) and the methods used to apply the seed.
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Miller et al. 2014, Figure 13A).

  • Seeding success on frigid/xeric ecological sites (score = 14-17) is typically high, but environmental factors such as precipitation timing and amount can affect seeding success even on cool-mesic/aridic and frigid/xeric ecological sites.
  • Drill seeding is much more effective than aerial or broadcast seeding (without a follow-up coverage treatment), especially on mesic/aridic soil temperature/moisture regimes where establishment success is very low.
  • Seeding should be considered where perennial herbaceous species are absent or severely depleted, cheatgrass seed bank is low, or treatment severity was high and if the ecological site characteristics are suitable for success (cumulative soil temperature and moisture usually scores ≥ 10-12).
  • However, for areas with scores > 10-15 that have sufficient perennial herbaceous species to recover following a prescribed fire or mechanical treatments, seeding with introduced species or aggressive cultivars will likely retard or prevent recovery of the native community.
  • Explore the graphic for specific considerations on seeding based on fire severity, pre-fire perennial herbaceous cover, and pre-fire cheatgrass seed density (Miller et al. (2015), Figure 8).
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Consider the following points when attempting to seed big sagebrush successfully (Great Basin Factsheet Series #10):

  • Big sagebrush can be seeded successfully on climatically suitable sites in the Great Basin with the following guidelines: using sufficient quantities of high-quality seed of the correct subspecies and ecotype, seeding in late fall to mid-winter, making sure that the seed is not planted too deeply, and seeding into an environment with reduced competition.
    • Subspecies/ecotypes:
      • Mountain big sagebrush (ssp. vaseyana) on higher elevation sites
      • Basin big sagebrush (ssp. tridentata) on deep soils in the valleys
      • Wyoming big sagebrush (ssp. wyomingensis) on drier upland sites at low elevation
    • Criteria for seed storage and use:
      • Use current-year seed lot if possible
      • Purchase seed that has been cold-stored
      • Have a seed lot that is a year or more old retested for viability immediately prior to purchase
    • Seeding rates of highly competitive grasses must be finely-tuned so that they are low enough to increase the chances of sagebrush establishment yet high enough to outcompete invasive annual grass species.
    • Aerial seeding of big sagebrush the first winter after a burn following drilling of larger-seeded species is one approach for large scale-post-fire rehabilitation and restoration projects that has been successful, though the exact timing may vary with the specific project location.

In the arid regions of the sagebrush steppe, success rates for seeding efforts with native plants are notoriously low. The lack of success is because much of the effort to restore rangelands with desired species has been based on the scaling-up of row crop agriculture technologies (e.g., seeding with seed drills), without taking the time to define specific ecological barriers to restoration success or practices to overcome these barriers. Limiting factors impairing seed establishment have their greatest impact during the early stages of plant development (James et al. 2011). Subsequently, restoration practices that can avoid or improve tolerance to limiting abiotic and biotic stresses during early stages of plant development should have a higher likelihood of success.

Watch the video of Tony Svejcar discussing these emerging technologies first and then review the details of the enhanced technologies below (Madsen et al. 2013).

  • Seed enhancement technologies allow for the physical manipulation and application of materials to the seed that can influence germination, emergence, and/or early seedling growth as well as facilitate planting and the delivery of other materials required at the time of sowing (Taylor 2003, Halmer 2008).
  • Film coating, encrusting, seed coating, and pelleting techniques are commonly used enhancement technologies in the seed industry for applying materials to the surface or external portions of the seed.
  • Some specific precision restoration methods include the following (Madsen et al. 2012a, 2012b, 2013):
  • Soil water Repellency: Overcoming soil water repellency using surfactant seed coatings. As shown in the illustration:
    1. a) A seed is coated with a soil surfactant to overcome hydrophobic soil conditions.
      b) Subsequent precipitation releases the surfactant into the soil, overcoming the water repellent layer and resulting in a hydrophilic conduit within the microsite of the seed.
      c) Then, enhanced soil moisture promotes seed germination and seedling survival.
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  • Clumping: Clumping (or agglomerating) of seeds into pellets to enhance native seedling emergence and growth. Agglomerated seeds may have improved emergence because the force of emerging seedlings increases with the number of seeds sown in the same location and allows them to break through the soil crust. As shown in the illustration:
    1. a) Seedling emergence being impeded by a physical soil crust layer.
      b) Multiple seeds in an agglomerated pellet are able to push through the soil crust.
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  • Extruded Seed Pellets: Extruded seed pellets or pillows facilitate the planting of small, low vigor, or difficult to germinate seeds. The illustration shows:
    1. a) Seeds attached to a seed pillow.
      b) Precipitation melts the pillow material over the seeds and enhances seed/soil contact and seedling growth.
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  • Time-release seed coatings to prevent early germination of fall-sown seed.
  • Improving herbicide selectivity through herbicide protection pod technology.

Given the potential for failure of “traditional” restoration, these techniques may be economically very valuable for some projects. The actual cost of a successful restoration treatment on a unit area basis can be thought of as the cost of the treatment divided by the probability of success (Boyd and Davies 2012). For example, if we assume a rehabilitation cost of $250 per hectare and a 10% probability of success, the cost outlay for every successfully rehabilitated hectare is $2,500. If the success rate is increased to 50% using precision seed enhancement technologies, then cost per successful hectare drops to $500 (savings of $2,000 for each successfully rehabilitated hectare).

Bareroot or container seedlings can be used to quickly re-establish big sagebrush and other native shrubs in situations where direct seeding is not feasible or unlikely to succeed. The use of seedlings can avoid problems like adverse environmental conditions, competition from herbaceous plants, and unsuccessful seedings (Great Basin Factsheet Series #8). However, seedlings are only feasible on small-scale projects and are relatively quite expensive:

Before Planting:

  • Knowing your site is key, including information about vegetation composition, slope, aspect, and soil conditions.
  • Selecting nurseries based on experience with the target species, type of planting stock required, and location relative to the planting site is essential.
  • Proper planting technique and root placement is critical to the long-term survival and growth of bareroot seedlings.
  • Project areas where planting stock may be considered include post-fire landscapes, cheatgrass and crested wheatgrass monocultures, and mining and energy development sites where rapid soil stabilization is required.

Planting Considerations:

  • When: Planting dates depend upon the species and planting location; cool, overcast, humid days with light rain or snow provide optimal planting weather. Planting is normally in spring, but can be done in fall. Timing is also dependent on availability of stock and funding for planting.
  • How: Proper planting technique and root placement is critical to the long-term survival and growth of seedlings (see graphic).
  • Use species and populations adapted to site conditions. On severely disturbed sites, early seral species may be more appropriate than late seral or climax species present in pre-disturbance vegetation.
  • Use furrows, pits, and mulches to collect and retain water in arid areas.
  • Provide supplemental water via remote irrigation methods to establish seedlings on very arid sites or to maintain seedlings during unusually dry seasons.

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  • Inoculate seedlings with appropriate species of mycorrhizal fungi, if available, to increase initial plant growth and survival.
  • Use erosion control structures, such as weed-free straw wattles, to reduce soil and water erosion and to provide protection for seedlings.
  • If high soil surface temperatures are expected, select protected microsites and use planting stock with a large stem diameter and high root-to-shoot ratios. Temperatures greater than 130°F near the soil surface can be lethal to plant cells.
  • Retain shade (e.g., taller woody and non-woody plants, post-fire standing dead shrubs) during site preparation, but plant seedlings on microsites from which vegetation has been removed.
  • Use mechanical or chemical site preparation treatments to reduce competing vegetation.
  • Minimize frost heaving by planting larger seedlings, covering the root plug of container seedlings with native soil, and providing a cover of sod, litter, or debris.
  • Protect seedlings from late frosts by avoiding frost-prone sites, establishing strips of rock or vegetative mulch to protect developing plants, and retaining insulating ground cover material.
  • Prevent seedling damage from both above and belowground herbivores (e.g., pocket gophers, jackrabbits, other small mammals, big game species).

Grazing as a Restoration Tool

Grazing can be a tool to restore and/or improve rangelands, particularly by reducing cheatgrass competition to promote native plant recovery. Perhaps the best example of this is the “Green and Brown” grazing strategy: graze when invasive annual grasses are green and desired species are brown.

Click Play to listen to Mike Pellant discuss livestock grazing as a fuels management tool.


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Click on graphic for a printable PDF version.

Grazing as a strategy is also known as time-controlled, short-duration, high-intensity grazing (see graphic from Smith et al. 2012). This strategy works because annual grasses are most palatable, nutritious, and susceptible to damage by grazing while green. Perennial grasses are less palatable and more grazing-tolerant when they are brown because they are dormant. This creates the opportunity to graze when annual grasses are green and perennial grasses are brown. Once the perennial grasses initiate any growth (become “green”), the animals must be moved to another pasture. Over time, desired perennial grasses will increase and annual grass abundance will decrease.


However, here are some key points from Mike Pellant’s “Restoration of Sagebrush Ecosystems” course to take into consideration:

  • To reduce cheatgrass fuels on large areas of rangelands you must strategically repeat appropriate grazing practices over a multi-year period over a diverse landscape under widely different climatic conditions.

  • Spring grazing in annual grass dominated areas is the most effective time to reduce cheatgrass fuel loads before the start of the wildfire season.
  • Fall/winter grazing can reduce carryover fuels but not spring production.
  • Scale of fuels management treatments has to be commensurate with the scale of a wildfire.
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A critically important issue when using grazing as a restoration tool is whether and how long to defer grazing on a site being restored (Miller et al. 2014):

  • Grazing deferment for only two growing seasons is probably appropriate where:
    • Treatment severity will be low to moderate;
    • Erosion is minimal;
    • Resilience and resistance to invasives is high;
    • Pre-treatment herbaceous vegetation is dominated by natives and invasive annual grasses are only a minor component; and
    • Post-treatment monitoring indicates adequate recovery of shrubs, perennial grasses, and forbs.
  • Grazing deferment for more than two growing seasons is probably appropriate where:
    • Treatment severity will likely be high, resulting in mortality of perennial grasses;
    • Resilience to treatment and resistance to invasives are moderate to low;
    • Invasive annual grasses are co-dominant or dominant; and
    • Post-treatment monitoring indicates low or slow recovery of perennial grasses and forbs.
  • It is also appropriate to consider the impacts of recreational use, wild horses/burros, and wildlife when deciding whether and how long to defer grazing.


Using Site-Appropriate Seed

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-National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration, 2015-2020



The development of a National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration (the Seed Strategy) was called for in the Implementation Plan for Secretarial order 3336 on Rangeland Fire Prevention, Management and Restoration. The Seed Strategy provides a coordinated approach to improving the use of native seed, building federal and private capacity, and increasing the supply of genetically appropriate native seed.

Choosing the right seed or plant materials for a project is not straightforward, but it is fundamental to restoration success. Both seed source and genetic diversity are important to consider when selecting seeds and plant materials. Sage-grouse habitat management exemplifies this new approach and demands a new level of sophistication because sage-grouse use a variety of shrubs, grasses, and forbs (Connelly et al. 2011).


Sage-grouse use of plant species varies by season and vegetation type, and its diet includes both plants and insects during nesting and brood-rearing (Dumroese et al. 2015). Specifically for sage-grouse, land managers cannot entirely rely on seed mixes that include only a few native perennial grass species or nonnative species such as nonnative wheatgrasses because these plant species will not support the full dietary or habitat needs of this (Dumroese et al. 2015) or many other sagebrush dependent species. The resilience and resistance approach will direct managers on when and where to seed, while the Seed Strategy will direct managers on what and how to seed.

Generalized seed zones are based on climate variables that have been shown to be important to plant establishment and survival, or are based on other broad scale ecological considerations, such as plant communities or soil types.

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Bower et al. (2014), Figure 3.

A recent generalized seed zone approach developed by Bower et al. (2014) uses minimum temperature and aridity variables to define provisional seed zones. When generalized seed zones are combined with level III ecoregions, the resulting map captures much of the variation existing in adaptive seed zones. Therefore, the combined provisional seed zone and ecoregion mapping approach is a good starting place when empirical seed zones are unavailable. The provisional seed zones of Bower et al. (2014) can be intersected with Sagebrush Focal Areas (SFAs) and sage-grouse Priority Habitat Management Areas (PHMAs) to produce a sagebrush provisional seed zone map.

When fully implemented, the Seed Strategy will ensure that managers will have available sufficient quantities of the correct, locally-adapted seeds for all needed species to use in restoration, rehabilitation, or fuels management projects. This will increase the likelihood of project success and ensure cost-efficient solutions to many land management problems.


We have some promising techniques for restoration; however, we don’t know everything that we need to know. Click Play to listen to Matt Germino discuss these promising sagebrush restoration techniques.


Next explore the Case Studies section to learn lessons from practitioners regarding restoration and ESR practices.