Rangeland responses to pastoralists' grazing management on a Tibetan steppe grassland, Qinghai Province, China

Richard B. Harris, Leah H. Samberg, Emily T. Yeh, Andrew T. Smith, Wang Wenying, Wang Junbang, Gaerrang, The Late Donald J Bedunah

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Livestock grazing is the principal land use in arid central Asia, and range degradation is considered a serious problem within much of the high-elevation region of western China termed the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau (QTP). Rangeland degradation on the QTP is variously attributed to poor livestock management, historical-cultural factors, changing land tenure arrangements or socioeconomic systems, climate change, and damage from small mammals. Few studies have examined currently managed pastures using detailed data capable of isolating fine-scale livestock-vegetation interactions. The aim of the study was to understand how differences among livestock (primarily sheep) management strategies of pastoralists during winter affected subsequent rangeland condition and productivity. Plant species composition, annual herbage mass, and indicators of erosion were quantified during four summers (2009-2012) on winter pastures managed by 11 different pastoralists on QTP steppe rangeland in Qinghai Province, China. Data came from repeated-measurements on 317 systematically located permanent plots, as well as pastoralist interviews and the use of GPS-equipped livestock. Relationships between annual weather variation and herbage mass were modelled using an independent set of vegetation measurements obtained from livestock exclosures. Account was taken of inherent site differences among pastures. Annual variation in herbage mass was found to be best fitted by a model containing a negative function of winter-season temperature and a positive function of spring-season temperature. Accounting for annual and site effects, significant differences among pastoralists were found for most response variables, suggesting that individual heterogeneity among management approaches had consequences, even among neighbouring pastoralists. Annual herbage mass of preferred plant species was positively associated, whereas that of unpreferred species was negatively associated, with mean sheep density and intensity of use. However, the proportion of bare soil, an index of erosion, and annual herbage mass of unpreferred forbs were found to have positive relationships with sheep grazing pressure during the preceding winter, whereas live vegetation cover and annual herbage mass of preferred grasses were negatively related. Thus, on a spatial scale, pastoralists responded adaptively to the cover of preferred plant species while not responding to total annual herbage mass. Pastoralists stocked pastures more heavily, and livestock used regions within pastures more intensively, where preferred species had a higher cover. However, where sheep grazing pressure was high, downward temporal trends in the herbage mass of preferred species were exacerbated. Pastures that were stocked at a lower density did not experience the negative trends seen in those with a higher density.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-15
Number of pages15
JournalRangeland Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2016


  • China
  • Qinghai-Tibetan plateau
  • Tibetan pastoralism.
  • grasslands
  • livestock
  • rangeland degradation
  • steppe vegetation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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