Climate change could alter the population growth of dominant species, leading to profound effects on community structure and ecosystem dynamics. Understanding the links between historical variation in climate and population vital rates (survival, growth, recruitment) is one way to predict the impact of future climate change. Using a unique, long-term data set from eastern Idaho, USA, we parameterized integral projection models (IPMs) for Pseudoroegneria spicata, Hesperostipa comata, and Artemisia tripartita to identify the demographic rates and climate variables most important for population growth. We described survival, growth, and recruitment as a function of genet size using mixed-effect regression models that incorporated climate variables. Elasticites for the survival + growth portion of the kernel were larger than the recruitment portion for all three species, with survival + growth accounting for 87–95% of the total elasticity. The genet sizes with the highest elasticity values in each species were very close to the genet size threshold where survival approached 100%. We found strong effects of climate on the population growth rate of two of our three species. In H. comata, a 1% decrease in previous year's precipitation would lead to a 0.6% decrease in population growth. In A. tripartita, a 1% increase in summer temperature would result in a 1.3% increase in population growth. In both H. comata and A. tripartita, climate influenced population growth by affecting genet growth more than survival or recruitment. Late-winter snow was the most important climate variable for P. spicata, but its effect on population growth was smaller than the climate effects we found in H. comata or A. tripartita. For all three species, demographic responses lagged climate by at least one year. Our analysis indicates that understanding climate effects on genet growth may be crucial for anticipating future changes in the structure and function of sagebrush steppe vegetation.