Vegetation changes associated with climate shifts and anthropogenic disturbance have major impacts on biogeochemical cycling. Much of the interior western United States currently is dominated by sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt.) ecosystems. At low to intermediate elevations, sagebrush ecosystems increasingly are influenced by cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum L.) invasion. Little currently is known about the distribution of belowground organic carbon (OC) on these changing landscapes, how annual grass invasion affects OC pools, or the role that nitrogen (N) plays in carbon (C) retention. As part of a Joint Fire Sciences-funded project called the Sagebrush Treatment Evaluation Project (SageSTEP), we quantified the depth distribution of soil OC and N at seven sites experiencing cheatgrass invasion. We sampled plots that retained sagebrush, but represented a continuum of cheatgrass invasion into the understory. Eighty-four soil cores were taken using a mechanically driven diamond-tipped core drill to a depth of 90 cm, or until bedrock or a restrictive layer was encountered. Samples were taken in 15-cm increments, and soil, rocks, and roots were analyzed for OC and total N. We determined that cheatgrass influences the vertical distribution of OC and N within the soil profile and might result in decreased soil OC content below 60 cm. We also found that OC and total N associated with coarse fragments accounted for at least 10% of belowground pools. This emphasizes the need for researchers to quantify nutrients in deep soil horizons and coarse fragments.
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