Rangeland degradation has been identified as a serious concern in alpine regions of western China on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau (QTP). Numerous government-sponsored programs have been initiated, including many that feature long-term grazing prohibitions and some that call for eliminating pastoralism altogether. As well, government programs have long favored eliminating plateau pikas (Ochotona curzoniae), assumed to contribute to degraded conditions. However, vegetation on the QTP evolved in the presence of herbivory, suggesting that deleterious effects from grazing are, to some extent, compensated for by reduced plant-plant competition. We examined the dynamics of common steppe ecosystem species as well as physical indicators of rangeland stress by excluding livestock and reducing pika abundance on experimental plots, and following responses for 4 years. We established 12 fenced livestock exclosures within pastures grazed during winter by local pastoralists, and removed pikas on half of these. We established paired, permanent vegetation plots within and outside exclosures and measured indices of erosion and biomass of common plant species. We observed modest restoration of physical site conditions (reduced bare soil, erosion, greater vegetation cover) with both livestock exclusion and pika reduction. As expected in areas protected from grazing, we observed a reduction in annual productivity of plant species avoided by livestock and assumed to compete poorly when protected from grazing. Contrary to expectation, we observed similar reductions in annual productivity among palatable, perennial graminoids under livestock exclusion. The dominant grass, Stipa purpurea, displayed evidence of density-dependent growth, suggesting that intra-specific competition exerted a regulatory effect on annual production in the absence of grazing. Complete grazing bans on winter pastures in steppe habitats on the QTP may assist in the recovery of highly eroded pastures, but may not increase annual vegetative production.
|Date made available||2019|