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Sea Of Sagebrush

Written by Dennis Sun

Sea Of Sagebrush

     Sagebrush, like water, is a fighting word in the West today. The difference is we have studied water over the years and we are now just beginning to understand sagebrush. We know it once covered over 300 million acres in the West as Americans went west to find gold, new lives and peace of mind. They would be surprised to learn that today, some are claiming that only one half of those acres remain.    

Here we are with another battleground in the West, and everyone puts their spin on facts to get their point across. Like water, we realize the importance of sagebrush, not only to wildlife as habitat but to the soil, environment and to us, humans.

We know there are 16 species of sagebrush that provide habitat for over 300 species, and around 50 species of animals couldn’t survive without it. I, and many others, prefer it to cheatgrass but always thought it has competed with range grasses for soil moisture. We learned early it made a great hot campfire when burned down to coals and could sterilize the soil as a result of a prairie fire. As with a lot of other issues, we’ve taken it for granted. I’m sure some place a too-high importance on it, and some don’t place enough importance on it. There lies the battlefield, most likely for some judge to rule on instead of depending on sound science.

We are learning that within those 16 different species of sagebrush there is a great diversity among individual species. Why does a sage grouse or a pygmy rabbit, both whom heavily depend on sagebrush for food during the winter, eat some leaves and not others? What is the value of the leaves they eat and the leaves that remain? As we have found out each sagebrush leaf has 300-400 unique compounds. Through research, biologists have found that both the sage grouse and pygmy rabbit have the ability to find the sagebrush plants that are least toxic and have more protein and other nutrients.

These are just a few of the questions some are studying. Researchers from the College of Idaho in Caldwell and others across the West are really into sagebrush these days. Those from the College of Idaho are looking at the potential medical uses of sagebrush. While we realize sagebrush is known for its antibacterial and antifungal properties, the College of Idaho research team is deconstructing sagebrush leaves to look for bioactive chemicals that could inhibit the body’s detoxification system. They think in the right dose amount, these chemicals could help the human body keep medication in its system for longer periods of time. They are looking for the leaves that have the chemicals in them that make the sage grouse and pygmy rabbits leave them behind. The chemistry that the animals are avoiding might be the place to look for very powerful drugs that could help cure diseases. 

Our human bodies are great for getting rid of drugs. The body is said to have all these different mechanisms for getting rid of foreign compounds, and it uses these mechanisms to get rid of drugs that are used to cure diseases. So maybe sagebrush leaves are part of the answer to help cure cancer and other terrible diseases. Think of that as you drive, walk or ride through it.