Short term recovery of vegetation and soil after abandoning cultivated mixedgrass prairies in Alberta, Canada.
Cultivating native rangeland can have detrimental effects on soil carbon and nitrogen storage. Understanding how vegetation and soil recover after returning marginal cultivated land to its native state is important since soil plays a key role not only in food production but also in regulating global climate change. Soil samples were taken from two sites, a mixedgrass and a dry mixedgrass prairie, which have different climates and plant species composition. Each study site included one undisturbed native plot (CK) and two cultivated treatments that were abandoned in 2008 after being cultivated for more than ten years prior to this study, one with continuous wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) and the other with wheat-fallow rotations. Soil organic carbon (SOC), total nitrogen (TN), and labile organic fraction content were measured in 2016, while plant coverage and species diversity were investigated in 2017. In both study sites, grass and sedge coverage in the previously cultivated treatments were lower than, with shrub and forb coverage similar to, the CK. The highest invasive species coverage appeared in the previously cultivated treatments. Species richness was higher with CK in the mixedgrass prairie but no differences were found in the more arid dry mixedgrass prairie. No differences were found among all treatments for species evenness, Simpson's index and Shannon-Wiener index. On average, in the 0-15 cm depth, SOC and TN contents with the previous cultivated treatments were still 20% and 16% lower than CK, respectively, whereas in the 15-30 cm depth, SOC and TN contents did not differ among all treatments except for SOC content in the mixedgrass prairie. Relative to CK, previously cultivated treatments had similar active carbon (AC), microbial respiration-carbon and NH4+-N contents but the mixedgrass prairie had lower water extractable-organic carbon and water extractable-nitrogen. In contrast, in the dry mixedgrass prairie all labile organic fraction contents, except for AC, were the same among all treatments. Negative relationships were found between plant diversity and surface soil carbon and nitrogen storage. Our results indicate that for short-term disturbed rangeland, 9 years is likely sufficient for the recovery of soil labile organic fractions and plant diversity but a longer time will be needed for the recovery of SOC and TN.