In polar environments, a lack of empirical knowledge about biodiversity prompts reliance on species distribution models to predict future change, yet these ignore the role of biotic interactions including the role of long past human exploitation. To explore how mammals of extreme elevation respond to glacial recession and past harvest, we combined our fieldwork with remote sensing and used analyses of ~60 expeditions from 1850–1925 to represent baseline conditions for wildlife before heavy exploitation on the Tibetan Plateau.