Ecology Letters (2010) 13: 959–968
Grazing occurs over a third of the earth’s land surface and may potentially influence the storage of 109 Mg year−1 of greenhouse gases as soil C. Displacement of native herbivores by high densities of livestock has often led to overgrazing and soil C loss. However, it remains unknown whether matching livestock densities to those of native herbivores can yield equivalent soil C sequestration. In the Trans-Himalayas we found that, despite comparable grazing intensities, watersheds converted to pastoralism had 49% lower soil C than watersheds which retain native herbivores. Experimental grazer-exclusion within each watershed type, show that this difference appears to be driven by indirect effects of livestock diet selection, leading to vegetation shifts that lower plant production and reduce likely soil C inputs from vegetation by c. 25 gC m−2 year−1. Our results suggest that while accounting for direct impacts (stocking density) is a major step, managing indirect impacts on vegetation composition are equally important in influencing soil C sequestration in grazing ecosystems.