Anchoring grassland sustainability with a nature-based small burrowing mammal control strategy

Wenjin Li*, Johannes M.H. Knops*, Xi Zhou, Huijun Jin, Zhiqiang Xiang, Cairang Ka Zhuo, Xiaoying Jin, Huakun Zhou, Shi Kui Dong

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Over the last 40 years, a burrowing mammal eradication policy has been prevalent on the Qinghai–Tibetan Plateau (QTP). This policy is based on similar burrowing mammal eradication programs in other areas and is justified on the assumptions that burrowing mammals compete with livestock for forage and contribute to grassland degradation. However, there is no clear theoretical or experimental evidence supporting these assumptions. This paper synthesizes the ecological functioning of small burrowing mammals in natural grasslands and discusses the irrationality and consequences of burrowing mammal eradication for sustainable livestock grazing and grassland degradation. Past burrowing mammal eradication efforts have failed because increased food availability for the remaining rodents and reduced predator populations led to rapid population rebounds. Herbivores differ in diet, and there is clear evidence that burrowing mammals, especially plateau zokors Myospalax baileyi, have a different diet than livestock. In QTP meadows, burrowing mammal eradication induces a shift towards plant communities with fewer species preferred by livestock and more species preferred by burrowing mammals. Thus, eradicating burrowing mammals has the opposite effect, a reduction in livestock preferred vegetation. We suggest that the policy of poisoning burrowing mammals needs to be reconsidered and revoked as soon as possible. We argue that incorporating density-dependent factors such as predation and food availability are essential for maintaining a low burrowing mammal density. For degraded grasslands, we suggest that the optimal sustainable approach is to decrease the intensity of livestock grazing. Lower grazing induces changes in vegetation structure and plant species composition that increases predation on burrowing mammals and decreases the abundance of plants preferred by burrowing mammals. Such a nature-based grassland management system maintains the density of burrowing mammals at a low stable density while minimizing human management and interventions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1345-1356
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023


  • Qinghai–Tibetan Plateau
  • grassland management
  • livestock grazing
  • multiple herbivores
  • nature-based solutions
  • rodent eradication
  • small burrowing mammals
  • sustainable livestock grazing system


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