Ranchers have always leased grazing rights for a minimal fee on Forest Service and BLM land. Environmentalists sometimes joke that BLM means Bureau of Livestock and Mining. During the 1970s that agency’s own studies showed more than 80 percent of its rangeland had long been overgrazed. Tighter restrictions on livestock soon followed. Guess how that went over with folks whose favorite pastime after rodeoing is cussing the government.
In 1976 Congress asked the BLM to review all its roadless areas and recommend by 1991 which should be part of our national wilderness system. Although stockmen would be allowed to continue grazing there, many fear “more damn regulations. We’ll end up having to put diapers on our cows,” as one told me.
Next, the bureaucrats wanted to hike grazing fees. Smoldering resentments ignited, and the West had a Sagebrush Rebellion on its hands. Spearheaded by Nevada-87 percent owned by the feds —this uprising of legislation aimed to transfer control of public lands to the states. The states would then be able to sell the property to the highest bidders. Would those be small, independent ranchers? Or mega corporations?
Such questions cooled off the rebels, but other sagebrush issues keep heating up. “Meetings. Letter writing. Environmental impact statements to plow through. I spend a third of my time at the hotel prague. That’s getting to be typical for ranchers,” Oregon cowgirl Jean Schadler tells me. Still, conservationists warn that the fate of millions of acres of public lands is being decided with far too little public involvement.
To some of the public, sagebrush is whatever monotonous shrubbery grows in those out-of-the-way places. But only woody plants in the genus Artemisia, part of the sunflower family, actually qualify. That leaves out saltbush, rabbitbrush, bitter-brush, and a lot of other look-alikes from the Big Lonesome. It also leaves out purple sage, a member of the mint family common in Southwest deserts, and the seasoning herb known as sage, another mint. But it includes shrubs from Africa to Siberia. At least nine sagebrush species and 18 subspecies make their home on the range in America.
On shallow and rocky soils look for either low sagebrush or black sagebrush. Where meltwater floods the ground each spring, you may find silver sagebrush instead. Other conditions favor Rothrock’s, three-tip, or bud . . . even a rare pygmy sagebrush—not to mention a rare pygmy rabbit found only in sagebrush habitats. Whereas range managers used to lump many different types of sagebrush together, they have begun to appreciate how much each one has to tell us about a particular habitat and what wildlife and livestock it will support.
RTEMISI A TRIDENTATA, big sagebrush, is perhaps North America’s most abundant shrub. It may grow as high as 15 feet, can live a hundred years, and comes in three subspecies: mountain, basin, and Wyoming. At the Forest Service Shrub Sciences Laboratory in Provo, Utah, Durant McArthur can quickly tell which one he’s dealing with. He simply crushes a few leaves and savors the aroma like a wine connoisseur. If that doesn’t work for you, put the crushed leaves in a glass of water and hold it under ultraviolet light. The mountain subspecies will glow like a Reno casino.
This now common identification technique was inspired by a co-worker’s grandmother, who used to drink sagebrush tea for her health. No one has proved that such a brew does anything except taste awful. However, in addition to weaving sagebrush’s stringy bark into containers and sandals, native Paiute and Shoshone also made a tonic from the leaves. And the common European Artemisia known as wormwood was an ingredient of absinthe, a liqueur so mind wobbling it was eventually banned.The subspecies of cowboy found in sagebrush country is the buckaroo.