sagebrush shrubs and multicolored wildflowers and grasses of many forms at the base of large, jagged mountains with a cloudy blue sky
Sagebrush steppe at the base of the Teton Range. A closer look reveals a great diversity of plant species which together make up a complex ecological system. Photo: Sienna Wessel

I can’t believe that it has been over a month since I started as a Scientists in Parks intern at Grand Teton National Park! In addition to my internship position, I am currently a graduate student in the Department of Botany at the University of Wyoming where I research the dynamics and environmental drivers of restored sagebrush steppe communities and how physical traits like seed mass can inform restoration and management in the face of climate change. I am so thrilled that I get to continue working with these complex and interesting plant communities during my internship with added focus on communications and management. Allow me to orient you to life among the sagebrush!

Life is Truly Grand in the Grand Teton Steppe

When you first arrive at Grand Teton National Park your eyes will immediately be drawn to the rugged peaks which shoot out suddenly from the surrounding flats at seemingly impossible angles.  It is hard to settle your gaze at the feet of this majestic mountain range which creates a true postcard-perfect paradise right in the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. But for me, it is the Monet-esque palette of the sagebrush steppe plant communities at the base that truly draws the eye. The Tetons are a relatively young mountain range at less than 9 million years old and along with their orogeny (formation), they have spilled glacial outwash into an area now known as Antelope Flats.

large yellow flowers with big hairy green leaves
Arrowleaf balsamroot is one of the largest wildflowers in the steppe. It is a favorite forage plant of many wildlife species. Photo: Sienna Wessel

The outwash soils of the flats support unique sagebrush steppe communities which at first glance may look like a homogenous sea of dusty-green sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. vaseyana) shrubbery, but upon closer inspection reveal a surprising diversity of native wildflowers Balsamorhiza sagittata), and honey-scented flowers of antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) all add to the ecological complexity and beauty of these communities. Among this diverse landscape roam pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), red fox (Vulpes vulpes), bison (Bison bison), long-billed curlews (Numenius americanus), pocket gophers (Thomomys talpoides), grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis), moose (Alces alces), elk (Cervus canadensis), and the threatened Greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus)- to name just a few key species that depend on the steppe for their livelihoods. During my first week in the park alone, I stood solitary among the sagebrush and witnessed the migration of dozens of elk from the adjacent National Elk refuge, a fox “mousing” for its dinner, and pronghorn which would nearly walk to my feet out of sheer curiosity, if I had let them. Few places feel this essentially and deeply free, and I can easily argue that we must thank the sagebrush for this abundance of life.




Sagebrush Steppe: A Undervalued and Threatened Ecosystem

close up of a single stem of a shrub with cream-yellow flowers
Bitterbrush commonly occurs alongside sagebrush in steppe communities. It is an important food source for browsers in the winter because is still accessible above the snowpack. Photo: Sienna Wessel

Sadly, it can be hard for some to see the beauty and buzz of life that flows like an undercurrent through the steppe. Many see a drab, monotonous landscape that is erroneously recognized as nothing more than a wasteland. Today, over 50% of sagebrush steppe has already been converted or degraded and the rest is threatened by encroaching invasive species and the growing impacts of climate change. In response to these threats and large-scale conversion of sagebrush steppe to hayfields which took place in the 1800s, Grand Teton has worked tirelessly for a decade to restore healthy and diverse sagebrush steppe communities- a complex and difficult task that requires the knowhow to essentially “piece back together” an ecological system. Combined, these challenges underscore the need for the communication of ecological knowledge, scientific discovery, and land management within National Parks. My job and desire as a Scientists in Parks Fellow at Grand Teton is to share the story of these incredible plant communities (aka “Secrets of the Sage”) and the immense work that the park has done to fight for their persistence. I am here to work on several aspects of sagebrush steppe science, communication, and management with these challenges and efforts in mind.

Uncovering the Secrets of The Sage

During my first month, I have designed and implemented monitoring of ephemeral (short-lived spring blooming) plants in the steppe which are key food sources for wildlife, assisted with phenological (bloom-time) surveys to aid seed collection plans, measured plant “traits” like leaf area for ecological research, worked on updating steppe species lists for monitoring, and initiated several science communication projects. Currently, I am focused on the development of an ArcGIS StoryMap for the Grand Teton website which interactively connects visitors to the sagebrush landscape and its value within the park and beyond. I have also worked with my mentor to establish plans for the development of new management and monitoring strategies based on the application of recent scientific analyses of restoration outcomes.

as researcher wearing a Scientists in Parks green hat and gray shirt stand in from of a big mountain range with an orange clipboard and a purple flower appearing to make an observation
Scientists in Parks fellow Sienna Wessel conducts surveys for early spring-blooming plants which are key food sources for Greater sage-grouse and are unique pieces of the ecological puzzle of restoration that Grand Teton is working to piece together. Photo: Garth Wessel

Should you ever have the chance to sit quietly among the sagebrush at the base of some of the world’s oldest rocks and youngest mountain formations, I hope you lift a branch and peer deeper into the complex and mysterious world of the sagebrush steppe that has captured my being so completely. Thank you to the Ecological Society of America and the National Park Service for this opportunity to work as a plant ecologist in such a truly “Grand” place! 

You can follow my journey to discover and share the “Secrets of the Sage” by visiting my webpage and by following me on social media: Twitter @CuttingVegBotny or Instagram @cutting_veg_botany