Location and General Description
This is the world’s largest dry steppe region. Before it was brought into cultivation largely in the 1950s, this region was a continuous belt stretching across Central Asia from the Ural River in the west to the Altai foothills in the east (approximately along 48° to 50°N). Its boundaries coincide with a center of high atmospheric pressure. Summers are typically hot and dry, while winters are cold without significant snow accumulation. Precipitation is 250 to 300 mm a year, most of it in the spring. Strong winds are typical. In summer, they often cause drought, while in winter they bring snowstorms called "burans." Geologically, the region is diverse. The relief can be either completely flat low plain or gentle hilly plain plateau. In the latter case, the hills are a result of old erosional processes typical for this ecoregion, relief features called "melkosopochniki" (low mountains with gentle forms). The elevational differences among melkosopochniks barely exceeds 200 m. Some parts of the ecoregion, especially on the west end (Shalkar Lake watershed) and in the east (Kulundinskaya Lowland), have progressive salt accumulation. Several large rivers, such as the Ural and Irtysh and their tributaries, traverse the region. Nevertheless, most of the ecoregion is situated in closed basins (Chibilev 1998; Mordkovich et al. 1997). There is an abundance of flat bottom lakes, from tiny ones called "saucers" to very large ones such as Kulundinskoe, Selety-Tengiz, and Salkar (Posokhov 1955). Typical soils are chernozem (black soil) and chestnut (brown) soils, although they accumulate less humus than the same type of soils to the north and to the west (Chibilev 1998; Mordkovich et al. 1997; UNESCO, MAB 1997).
There are more than 25 physiognomic steppe formations in the region. Most of the area is occupied by steppe and dry steppe, with desert steppe being less common. Turf graminoids dominate these formations, primarily species in the genus Stipa. Co-dominants include other graminoids feathergrasses (Stipa zalesskii, S. lessingiana, S. pennata, S. tirsa, S. capillata, S. sareptana, S. orientalis), fesca (Festuca valesiaca, F. rupicola), Koeleria cristata, and species of Agropyron and Helictotrichon. Other dominants are sagebrush species (Artemisia austriaca, A. lerchiana, A. lessingiana, A. sublessingiana, A. santonica, A. gracilescens, A. marschalliana, A. frigida, A. glauca, A. nitrosa). Steppe occupies plateaus, except deep depressions and gullies, lake depressions and solonchak depressions Several types of meadows are found in deep depressions : communities of halophytes, meadow swamps and forested meadow swamps. Shrub steppe is also common in this ecoregion comprised of xerophyte shrub and tree species of Spiraea, Caragana, Amygdalus, Lonicera. (Chibilev 1998; Lavrenko et al. 1991; UNESCO, MAB 1997).
The number of plant species in this ecoregion has been estimated at 800, but there has been no single review for the entire ecoregion. The endemism rate is low. There are no endemic genera; endemics are at the subgenus and species level only (for example, the subgenera Santolina and Kittariana of the genus Tanacetum). Nevertheless, centers of origin of certain genera, such as Stipa, Astragalus and Oxytropis, occur.
Specific environmental conditions have led to certain characteristic adaptations among plants. The dominant ecological life forms are compact turf or cushion-like plants . These life forms are adopted to droughts, strong winds, frost with little snow cover, fires, and grazing. Ephemers and ephemeroids are two other dominant life forms that can complete their annual life cycle during the short spring (species in the families Liliaceae and Amaryllidaceae; genera Tulipa, Ornithogalum, Gagea, Ixiolirion, and Eremurus). Yet another dominant life form is "perekati pole" or tumbleweed as it is known in America. Inflorescents form a shape of resilient strong lattice spheres, which allow the plant to snap off easily in heavy wind and roll over many kilometers, disseminating seeds.
During the growing season, there are six to twelve waves of growth and flowering (called aspects), during which different species replace each other. A particular species is very abundant and noticeable during only one wave. It can be almost undetectable during the rest of the season. Therefore, a steppe’s appearance changes dramatically during the season, and species composition recorded at different times in the same season can be very different.
Most of the mammals here burrow, live in colonies, or migrate (Lavrenko et al. 1991; Mordkovich et al. 1997). Of the latter, only the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) still persists in the ecoregion. It was at the verge of extinction in the early 20th century but was restored, and is now a major game species. Long-distance migrations between winter pastures and summer "maternal wards"(Sokolov and Zhirnov 1998) are characteristic for saiga. The original natural disturbance regimes include moderate grazing by wild ungulates, periodic fires and disturbance of colonies of burrowers. Only fragments of the area still maintain these regimes, mainly in melkosopochnik areas.
The typical fauna of mammals in the vast Kazakhstan steppes includes the numerous rodents such as ground squirrels (Citellus), hamsters (Cricetus, Cricetulus, Podopus), voles (Microtus), birch mice (Sicista), lemmings (Lagurus), marmots (Marmota bobac); and lagomorphs such as pikas (Ochotona) and hares (Lepus). Wolf (Canis lupus), foxes (Vulpes vulpes, V. corsac) and Siberian polecat (Mustela eversmanni) are typical steppe carnivores.
Hundreds of thousands of waterfowl species are visiting desert water bodies in Kazakhstan steppe on their spring and fall migratory routes, some are nesting there. Wetlands, such as the system of Kourgaldzhin and Tengiz Lakes (2,580 sq. km) included in the Ramsar Convention List of Wetlands of International Importance. These wetlands are especially important for the conservation of such rare aquatic birds as gulls (Larus relictus, L. ichthyaetus), white-headed duck (Oxyura leucocephala), marbled teal (Anas angustirostris), flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus), ferruginous duck (Aythya nyroca), sociable plover (Vanellus gregarius), white and Dalmatian pelicans (Pelecanus crispus, P. onocrotalus), and many others (112 species). Special international research is conducted here on ecology and biology of waterfowl (Steganopodes, Ciconiiformes), as well as on herring gull (Larus argentatus) and thin-billed curlew (Numenius tenuirostris).
Other rare or endangered bird species include eagles (Aquila chrysaetos, A. heliaca, A. rapax, Circaetus gallicus), osprey (Pandion haliaetus), falcons (Falco cherrug, F. pelegrinoides, F. peregrinus, F. rusticolus), demoiselle crane (Anthropoides virgo), and bustards (Otis tarda, Otis tetrax).
Among reptiles, ecoregion is represented by common lizards (Lacerta agilis) and vipers (Vipera ursini); amphibians include toads (Bufo viridis) and frogs (Rana arvalis).
The following animals from this ecoregion included in the IUCN Red Data List: (1) Mammals (global ranks in parentheses): corsac fox (Vulpes corsac) (DD), saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica tatarica)(VU A1), giant mole-rat (Spalax giganteus), (VU A1c), steppe pika (Ochotona pusilla) (VU A1cd, C2a), bobac marmot (Marmota bobac) (LR/cd), ground squirrel (Spermophilus major) (LR/nt), birch ouse (Sicista subtilis) (LR/nt), migratory hamster (Cricetulus migratorius) (LR/nt); and (2) Birds : white-headed duck (Oxyura leucocephala) (VU A2e), imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca) (VU C2a), lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni) (VU A1ace), pallid harrier (Circus macrourus)(LR/nt), great bustard (Otis tarda) (VU A2c), little bustard (Tetrax tetrax) (LR/nt), black-winged pratincole (Glareola nordmanni)(LR/nt) and sociable plover (Vanellus gregarius) (VU A1ac, C1+2a) (IUCN 1996).
Because most of the ecoregion was ploughed in the 1950s, now only 17 to 36 percent of the original steppe is preserved (Rozov and Bazilevich 1958; Mirkhashimov 1997; Chibilev 1998; Rachkovskaya et al.1999; Beletskaya et al.1999). Before plowing, the steppe was used for nomadic pasturing. Currently, large areas of non-cultivated habitats are preserved in melkosopochnik massives (Mugodzhary Melkosopochnik and Bayanaul Melkosopochnik) and around large wetlands (i.e., Teniz-Kourgaldzhin lake system). Most of the remaining unploughed habitat is represented by strongly modified and fragmented communities on relief positions (gullies, areas around lakes and hill slopes) or soil types (sandy or salty soils), that are not suitable for ploughing. They are located in a mosaic of agricultural lands: fields, abandoned fields, roads, etc. The existing network of protected areas includes three zapovedniks (two in Kazakhstan: Kourgaldzhinsky and Naurzumsky, and one in the Russian Federation: block Ashisayskaya Steppe of Orenburgsky Zapovednik) and two national parks (Bayanaul and Kokshetau). In total, 3,380 km2 are protected in zapovedniks and 1,290 km2 are protected in national parks. There are also about 30 zakazniks and several hundred natural monuments. Nevertheless, these protected areas do not cover or represent all diversity of natural communities. Well represented intrazonal communities include wetlands and associated forests. The diversity of steppe communities is underrepresented, and the current regime is not adequate for their preservation. Steppe ecosystems occupy only 10 percent of existing protected areas (Rachkovskaya 1999; Chibilev 1998; Mirkhashimov 1997).
Of 18 rare and endemic natural communities, 11 are not represented in protected areas (Rachkovskaya et al. 1999a). Endemic plant species habitats are not well protected in most jurisdictions in Kazakhstan or in Altaisky krai in the Russian Federation (Koroljuk et al. 1996). There are proposals to establish a number of large new protected areas, such as Ermentau Zapovednik and Tsentralno-Kazakhstansky Zapovednik, several reserves on the Poduralskoye Plateau and the Mugodzhary Melkosopochnik, a national park in Kent Melkosopochnik and Kyzylray Melkosopochnik in Kazakhstan. Kulundinsky Zapovednik has been proposed in Russia (Korolyuk and Khrustaleva 1998; Rachkovskaya et al. 1999a).
Types and Severity of Threats
The main threats are related to agriculture and, to a lesser extent, to mining. Ploughing and open mining of ores and coal have directly obliterated habitats. Overgrazing and the development of agricultural infrastructure have led to the fragmentation of remaining habitats and their degradation. Species having large home ranges disappear first. In the past, some species were subject to direct extermination due to poaching and the use of pesticides. These include colonial fossorial rodents (marmots, ground squirrels) large birds of prey, and phytophagous insects (grasshoppers). A serious problem is introduction of crow family (Corvidae) birds such as f rook (Corvus frugilegus) and hooded crow (Corvus corone cornix), especially along forest shelter belts.
After 1990, agriculture decreased significantly. Many ploughed lands were abandoned. The use of pesticides decreased to one percent of the former level. At the same time, poaching of some species has reached unprecedented levels, while threats related to the oil industries and mining steadily grow (Belik 1997; Rachkovskaya et al. 1999b).
Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
This belt of grassland stretches east from the Urals west to the mountains of Central Asia. In Russia, ecoregion boundaries correspond to the central and southern steppe in the Eastern Kazakhstan vegetation province in Kurnaev’s (1990) forest map of the USSR. In Kazakhstan, the ecoregion incorporates the steppe region according to Pereladova’s (1998) map of Central Asian ecosystems.
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Prepared by: Sergei Ponomarenko
Reviewed by: Victor Fet