Conserving Soil Carbon And Sage Grouse Habitat In Great Basin Meadows

meadow research

Meadows are crucial hotspots in mountainous regions and arid ecosystems. Meadows are diverse, highly productive grassland ecosystems that provide abundant forage and water storage for animals (including the greater Sage-grouse) and people.

One factor that sustains the functionality of meadow ecosystems is soil, which typically is high in organic carbon content and therefore has abundant nutrients and stores water for plant usage and downstream release.

Over millennia, large soil carbon stocks have developed as a result of high rates of below-ground carbon inputs and slow rates of decomposition of seasonally inundated (and therefore anaerobic) soils.

Many Great Basin meadow ecosystems have been degraded as a result of nearly two centuries of land use after Euro-American settlement. Great Basin meadows are crucial resources for wildlife and humans in the region, yet little is known about the links between soils, vegetation, and forage in meadow ecosystems.

Meadows can become degraded by various anthropogenic activities, and degraded meadows lack many of these important functions. One consequence of meadow degradation is a reduction in soil carbon stocks. As meadows dry, soil carbon becomes vulnerable to decomposition and the inputs of carbon decrease as plant communities change. The loss of soil carbon results in a subsidence of soil volume. This loss of soil represents a major release of carbon to the atmosphere, a loss of soil water storage, and a decrease in fertility.

Degraded meadows become trapped in a feedback loop in which they continue to dry and lose soil carbon until the function of the meadow is largely gone. Fortunately, simple and inexpensive meadow restoration efforts can improve soil carbon stocks and restore meadow function.

This project investigates the pre-restoration condition and the impact of restoration in two meadow complexes in the Great Basin.

The team will assess the soil carbon stocks, vegetation composition, and forage available for sage-grouse in degraded conditions and under different restoration conditions. Based on preliminary results, it is expected to show rapid gains in soil carbon and shifts in vegetation composition as a result of restoration. These changes will improve crucial forage habitat for sage-grouse, will result in improved grazing for cattle and other ungulates, and will provide an economic opportunity for land managers in the region to recoup, and even profit from, restoration efforts.