Human communities in the Intermountain West depend heavily on subalpine rangelands because of their importance in providing water for irrigation and forage for wildlife and livestock. In addition, many constituencies are looking to managed ecosystems to sequester carbon in plant biomass and soil C to reduce the impact of anthropogenic CO2 on climate. This work builds on a 90-year-old grazing experiment in mountain meadows on the Wasatch Plateau in central Utah. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the influence of 90 years of protection from grazing on processes controlling the input, output, and storage of C in subalpine rangelands. Long-term grazing significantly reduced maximum biomass in all years compared with plots within grazing exclosures. For grazed plots, interannual variability in aboveground biomass was correlated with July precipitation and temperature (R2 = 0.51), while there was a weak correlation between July precipitation and biomass in ungrazed plots (R2 = 0.24). Livestock grazing had no statistically significant impacts on total soil C or particulate organic matter (POM), although grazing did increase active soil C and decrease soil moisture. Grazing significantly increased the proportion of total soil C pools that were potentially mineralizable in the laboratory, with soils from grazed plots evolving 4.6% of total soil C in 1 year while ungrazed plots lost 3.3% of total soil C. Volumetric soil moisture was consistently higher in ungrazed plots than grazed plots. The changes in soil C chemistry may have implications for how these ecosystems will respond to forecast climate change. Because grazing has resulted in an accumulation of easily decomposable organic material, if temperatures warm and summer precipitation increases as is anticipated, these soils may become net sources of CO2 to the atmosphere creating a positive feedback between climate change and atmospheric CO2.
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Vol. 60 • No. 1