© Mike Norton (Colorado)



The sandsage prairie ecological system is found primarily in the south-central areas of the Western Great Plains. The greater part of the system occurs in the Central Shortgrass Prairie Ecoregion in eastern Colorado, western Kansas and southwestern Nebraska. This system is closely tied to sandy soils that are often associated with dune systems and ancient floodplains. This system is likely to intergrade closely with shortgrass prairie, in places forming a locally patchy sandsage/shortgrass matrix. This system is characterized by sand sagebrush with an understory of tall, mid- or short grasses. Fire and grazing are the most important dynamic processes for sandsage ecosystems, although drought stress can impact this system significantly in some areas. Greater and lesser prairie-chickens, Cassin’s sparrows, and ornate box turtles are indicators of a healthy sandsage prairie system.

Rarity in Sandsage Systems

The Lesser Prairie-chicken, the most significant of the at-risk species that inhabit Colorado’s sandsage, is one of Colorado’s rarest birds. Populations of the Lesser Prairie-chicken have declined, largely due to conversion of native prairie habitats to crop agriculture, and now occupy less than 10% of the range that was occupied in 1900. This species is ranked “vulnerable” (G3) across its range, and “imperiled” (S2) in Colorado by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program. It is listed as “threatened” by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, and is a Tier 1 Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Colorado’s Wildlife Action Plan. Other at-risk species that make their home in sandsage habitats include Cassin’s Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, and ornate box turtle.


According to Colorado’s Biodiversity Scorecard, the sandsage ecological system is poorly conserved in Colorado. The ecological integrity of this system in Colorado is vulnerable to adverse impacts from energy development (including both wind and oil and gas), and sandsage within Colorado is not at all well-represented within our system of protected lands. The sandsage ecological system is considered a high priority habitat in Colorado’s Wildlife Action Plan (referenced as “sand dune complex”).

Related Resources

Colorado Natural Heritage Program's Sandsage ecological system description

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