Climate over Asian montane rangelands is changing faster than the global average, posing serious threats to the future of the region's livestock-based economies and cultures. Effects of climate change on rangeland vegetation likely depend on grazing by herbivores but the potential responses of vegetation to such changes in climate and grazing regimes remain unclear.
We examined vegetation responses to experimentally simulated climate change (warming, drought and increased rainfall) and grazing (clipping vegetation) between 2015 and 2018 at two mountain rangeland sites: Spiti valley, in the Indian Trans-Himalaya and Tost, in the Gobi-Altai Mountains in Mongolia.
Clipping and climate change manipulations interactively reduced vegetation cover and biomass but did not affect species richness. Treatment effects and their interactions varied between sites. In ungrazed plots, vegetation cover and biomass declined sharply in response to warming (18%–35%) and drought (20%–50%) at the two sites, and, surprisingly also declined slightly in response to increased rainfall (20%) at Tost. While the effects of climate treatments were largely similar in the grazed and ungrazed plots in Tost, they were larger in the ungrazed plots in Spiti. The decline in vegetation cover was driven by a decline in the cover of both forbs and grasses.
In combination, grazing and warming (Tost) or drought (Spiti) had sub-additive effects, that is, the decrease in vegetation cover in response to grazing and warming/drought was less than the sum of their independent effects but greater than the effect of either manipulation alone. Of the two, warming had a greater effect than drought at the more arid site (Tost), whereas drought had a larger effect at the more mesic site (Spiti).
Synthesis and applications. Our findings show that future changes in climate, including just over 1°C of warming, could undermine the sustainability of pastoral economies and the persistence of wildlife across Asian montane rangelands. Furthermore, grazing by herbivores will play an important role in mediating rangeland responses to climate change; thus, pasture management in concert with local pastoralists will be crucial in mitigating the adverse effects of climate change on rangelands, pastoral livelihoods and wildlife populations.