Identifying the effects of grazing is critical for the conservation, protection and sustainable use of arid grassland ecosystems. However, research regarding the ecological effects of grazing along mountainous elevation gradients is limited in arid areas, particularly at the regional scale. Using the Biome-BGC grazing model, we explored the effects of grazing on grassland net primary productivity (NPP), evapotranspiration (ET) and water use efficiency (WUE) from 1979 to 2012 along an elevation gradient in the northern Tianshan Mountains. The NPP, ET and WUE values were generally lower under the grazing scenario than under the ungrazed scenario; the differences between the grazing and ungrazed scenarios showed increasing trends over time; and distinct spatial heterogeneity in these differences was observed. Distinct decreases in NPP and WUE under the grazing scenario mainly occurred in regions with high livestock consumption. The decrease in ET was greater in mountainous areas with high grazing intensity due to decreased transpiration and increased surface runoff. This study contributes to a better understanding of the ecological effects of grazing along an elevation gradient in the northern Tianshan Mountains and provides data to support the scientific management of grassland ecosystems.
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