The Billings Outpost

High-level dispute over history of sagebrush

Gary Svee and I have been friends, colleagues and business partners for more than 30 years. We traveled together, drank beer together, ran a newspaper together and once won a national award together.

That last event landed us both in “Who’s Who.” Full disclosure: the typical “Who’s Who” honoree’s name is followed by 10 or 15 lines listing life achievements. Our names were followed by only one line. We were not really “Who’s Who” material. Readers who saw our names would grunt “Who’s That?”

We seldom disagree, but on one topic we are miles apart: sagebrush!

Svee doesn’t seem to like sagebrush and insists on the Montana myth that in the last days of the open range, when Texas and Missouri cattle were driven north and east to find free grass to make beef for rich Eastern investors, overgrazing destroyed the range, exterminated buffalo grass and was replaced by sagebrush.

I say “overgrazing doverschmazing.”

It’s my contention that native grasses would have recovered land lost to sagebrush in the 150 years since barbed wire arrived on open range.

Svee, author of a stack of Western novels and winner of the Spur Award, the genre’s equivalent of the Oscar, should know his sagebrush.

On the other hand, as a know-it-all, I should qualify as an expert as well.

Last week I resolved to track down the story and settle this argument once and for good. Tracking the collision of range plants a century and a half ago, I consulted both botanists and historians. I spoke to state and county Extension Service employees, a historian from the University of Montana, a biology professor from Montana State University Billings and an old rancher who smoked Bull Durham.

The result: nada, nothing, zip. None had heard of sagebrush crowding out overgrazed native grasses.

My search did plow up a few interesting sagebrush facts. For example:

Sagebrush is both unpalatable and drought resistant. This gives it a big edge in competition with various grasses. Well established stands of sagebrush have been found to deter establishment of grasses well adapted to soil and climate in more than 100 tests in the Rocky Mountain region.

Artemisia tridentate wyomingensis is the head bull buffalo chief of the species. Drive along the southern base of the Pryors, then drift westward and look for silver shrubs as big as Cadillacs and as tall as a man on horseback. On both sides of the Montana-Wyoming border cowboys call it “big sage.” Look for the three-pointed leaf. Size varies depending on soil and water conditions and the particular sub-species.

The Helt Road rolls over the big stony flat crossed by a two-track road to Bear Canyon. Just inside the canyon mouth a plank-built table is all that remains of what was once a public picnic area. I have never seen picnickers there, but as soon as the chokecherries ripen the bears come to harvest a bonanza overlooked by both birds and humans.

Fat black bears grow fatter in late August, gobbling chokecherries until their bellies fill, then excreting piles of scarcely digested wild fruit.

Bear Creek tumbles down from the mountains, growing leaner and leaner until it disappears into the alluvial fan below the canyon mouth.

Here, where the creek dives into the gravel, the king of Big Sagebrush grows amid a thicket of wild rose. This lone specimen rises nearly 15 feet without a branch for the first 10 feet. The trunk is nearly 25 inches in circumference. The King is more tree than shrub.

Sagebrush arose eons ago. In the millennia after the appearance of its early ancestors, the shrub covered the American Plains. In the course of its development, it evolved dozens of forms.

Deep roots - 20 feet or more - allowed it to thrive on arid soils. The silver-gray leaves produced chemicals both bitter and toxic that protected them from herbivores. Some of the herbivores developed resistance to these chemicals in an evolutionary arms race that made sagebrush leaves the mainstay of their diet. Sage grouse and pronghorn antelope are the most familiar here in Montana.

Paleontologists trace the movement of sagebrush between Mexico and Saskatchewan during Ice Ages through fossils of the sagebrush vole, a mouse that lives among the silvery shrubs. The coyote haunt the sage, often dining on the vole.

Native Americans used the pungent shrub to treat a wide array of ailments.

Sagebrush leaves were burned and the smoke enlisted to treat headache, depression and respiratory problems. A poultice of leaves stanched wounds and warded off infection of the umbilical stump.

Dried leaves were burned to purify tipis and to bless pregnant women and young warriors. Sage smoke carried prayers to heaven and blended the prayers of one group with those of distant worshipers.

Sage variants appeared in a raft of colors, including black, blue, silver and white sage. Others were named for their native ranges: African, Alpine, Basin, Boreal and California, Island, Prairie and Timberland Sage. And don’t forget Boreal, Basin, Coastal, Fringed, Pygmy and Owyhee sage.

Does sagebrush elbow native grasses out of the way? I’m still searching for the answer to that question.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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