Plant and Soil

, Volume 280, Issue 1–2, pp 77–90 | Cite as

Grazing and Ecosystem Carbon Storage in the North American Great Plains

  • Justin D. DernerEmail author
  • Thomas W. Boutton
  • David D. Briske


Isotopic signatures of 13C were used to quantify the relative contributions of C3 and C4 plants to whole-ecosystem C storage (soil+plant) in grazed and ungrazed sites at three distinct locations (short-, mid- and tallgrass communities) along an east–west environmental gradient in the North American Great Plains. Functional group composition of plant communities, the source and magnitude of carbon inputs, and total ecosystem carbon storage displayed inconsistent responses to long-term livestock grazing along this gradient. C4 plants [primarily Bouteloua gracilis (H.B.K.) Lag ex Steud.] dominated the long-term grazed site in the shortgrass community, whereas the ungrazed site was co-dominated by C3 and C4 species; functional group composition did not differ between grazed and ungrazed sites in the mid- and tallgrass communities. Above-ground biomass was lower, but the relative proportion of fine root biomass was greater, in grazed compared to ungrazed sites at all three locations. The grazed site of the shortgrass community had 24% more whole-ecosystem carbon storage compared to the ungrazed site (4022 vs. 3236 g C m−2). In contrast, grazed sites at the mid- and tallgrass communities had slightly lower (8%) whole-ecosystem carbon storage compared to ungrazed sites (midgrass: 7970 vs. 8683 g C m−2; tallgrass: 8273 vs. 8997 g C m−2). Differential responses between the shortgrass and the mid- and tallgrass communities with respect to grazing and whole-ecosystem carbon storage are likely a result of: (1) maintenance of larger soil organic carbon (SOC) pools in the mid- and tallgrass communities (7476–8280 g C m−2) than the shortgrass community (2517–3307 g C m−2) that could potentially buffer ecosystem carbon fluxes, (2) lower root carbon/soil carbon ratios in the mid- and tallgrass communities (0.06–0.10) compared to the shortgrass community (0.20–0.27) suggesting that variation in root organic matter inputs would have relatively smaller effects on the size of the SOC pool, and (3) the absence of grazing-induced variation in the relative proportion of C3 and C4 functional groups in the mid- and tallgrass communities. We hypothesize that the magnitude and proportion of fine root mass within the upper soil profile is a principal driver mediating the effect of community composition on the biogeochemistry of these grassland ecosystems.


δ13C isotope signatures carbon storage grazing Great Plains soil organic carbon 


A. gerardii

Andropogon gerardii


annual net primary productivity

B. gracilis

Bouteloua gracilis



P. smithii

Pascopyrum smithii

S. scoparium

Schizachyrium scoparium


soil organic carbon


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Copyright information

© Springer 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Justin D. Derner
    • 1
    Email author
  • Thomas W. Boutton
    • 2
  • David D. Briske
    • 2
  1. 1. High Plains Grasslands Research StationUSDA-ARSCheyenneUSA
  2. 2.Department of Rangeland Ecology and ManagementTexas A&M UniversityUSA

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