Satellite observations identify the Mongolian steppes as a hotspot of global biomass reduction, the extent of which is comparable with tropical rainforest deforestation. To conserve or restore these grasslands, the relative contributions of climate and human activities to degradation need to be understood. Here we use a recently developed 21-year (1988–2008) record of satellite based vegetation optical depth (VOD, a proxy for vegetation water content and aboveground biomass), to show that nearly all steppe grasslands in Mongolia experienced significant decreases in VOD. Approximately 60% of the VOD declines can be directly explained by variations in rainfall and surface temperature. After removing these climate induced influences, a significant decreasing trend still persists in the VOD residuals across regions of Mongolia. Correlations in spatial patterns and temporal trends suggest that a marked increase in goat density with associated grazing pressures and wild fires are the most likely non-climatic factors behind grassland degradation.