Biogeochemistry of a north-temperate grassland with native grazers: nitrogen dynamics in Yellowstone National Park

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Nutrient dynamics of large grassland ecosystems possessing abundant migratory grazers are poorly understood. We examined N cycling on the northern winter range of Yellowstone National Park, home for large herds of free-roaming elk (Cervus elaphus) and bison (Bison bison). Plant and soil N, net N mineralization, and the deposition of ungulate fecal-N were measured at five sites, a ridgetop, mid-slope bench, steep slope, valley-bottom bench, and riparian area, within a watershed from May, 1991 to April, 1992.

Results indicated similarities between biogeochemical properties of Yellowstone grassland and other grassland ecosystems: (1) landscape position and soil water affected nutrient dynamics, (2) annual mineralization was positively related to soil N content, and (3) the proportion of soil N mineralized during the year was negatively related to soil C/N.

Grazers were a particularly important component of the N budget of this grassland. Estimated rates of N flow from ungulates to the soil ranged from 8.1 to 45.6 kg/ha/yr at the sites (average = 27.0 kg/ha/yr), approximately 4.5 times the amount of N in senescent plants. Rates of nitrogen mineralization for Yellowstone northern range grassland were higher than those measured in other temperate grassland ecosystems, possibly due to grazers promoting N cycling in Yellowstone.

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