Four Distinct Environments In Southern Nevada

This story appeared in the September 2013 issue of Desert Report.

Editor’s note: This year, National Wildlife Refuge Week is October 13-19. This annual event recognizes the nation’s 560 national wildlife refuges and falls on the second full week in October. Many refuges host public celebrations during this time.

Many visitors to southern Nevada, as well as residents, are surprised to learn that there are four national wildlife refuges in the area. Obviously, Lake Mead and Red Rock Canyon are well-known attractions, but the area’s national wildlife refuges are frequently overlooked. Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the four refuges comprising the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex are located within a 90-mile radius of Las Vegas. They are home to numerous endemic species of plants and animals, some of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The Desert Complex refuges are among the 560 units of the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS). The NWRS mission is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.

The four wildlife refuges hosted only 130,000 visitors in Fiscal Year 2012 — a small number considering that they are located relatively close to nearly two million people living in the Las Vegas metropolitan area (the Desert NWR is only 15 miles north of the city). So, the USFWS continues to encourage people to connect with nature and learn more about the work being done to protect endangered species and their habitats. Public access to the refuges is free of charge.

Ash Meadows Sunset. USFWS Photo/Cyndi Souza
Ash Meadows Sunset. USFWS Photo/Cyndi Souza

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is located in Nye County, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The refuge was established in 1984 under the authority of the Endangered Species Act.

It comprises approximately 24,000 acres of spring-fed wetlands and desert uplands that provide habitat for at least 24 plant and animal species that occur nowhere else in the world. The refuge is recognized as a wetland of international importance.

There are four species of endemic and endangered desert fish at Ash Meadows: the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish, the Warm Springs pupfish, the Ash Meadows speckled dace, and the Devil’s Hole pupfish. (Devil’s Hole is located within the refuge boundaries, but it is managed by the National Park Service as part of Death Valley National Park.) Approximately 340 species of plants can be found on the refuge — one is listed as endangered and six as threatened. The listed plants are endemic to Ash Meadows, which means they are found nowhere else in the world. Also, nearly 300 species of birds have been reported on the refuge. Birders and photographers flock to the refuge during the spring and fall for a glimpse of their favorite bird(s).

Visitors can also follow three different boardwalks, which offer close-up views of rare pupfish, relics from prehistoric Indians, and even an old stone cabin built in 1895 by the mysterious gunslinger Jack Longstreet.

Desert National Wildlife Refuge, only 15 miles north of Las Vegas, was established in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the protection, preservation, and management of desert bighorn sheep and other native flora and fauna. The 1.6-million-acre refuge is the largest in the lower 48 states. It contains six mountain ranges and seven distinct life zones, with elevations ranging from 2,200 feet on valley floors to nearly 10,000 feet in the Sheep Range. The variations in elevation and rainfall have created diverse habitats. Visitors will see everything from Joshua trees and creosote bushes to piñon pines, junipers and ponderosa pines.

The land that is now the Desert NWR has been home to people for thousands of years, from Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) to ranch homesteaders. Nonetheless, the refuge remains largely unchanged by human hands. More than 1.3 million acres of the refuge are proposed as wilderness, and have been managed as de facto wilderness since 1974. Visitors can see collared lizards, hunt for tracks of elusive mountain lions, get a glimpse of bighorn sheep and mule deer, or grab their binoculars for a better look at 320 bird species. Camping and hiking opportunities abound.

Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuge is located on just 116 acres in northeastern Clark County, approximately 60 miles north of Las Vegas. The refuge was established in 1979 under the authority of the Endangered Species Act to secure habitat for the endangered Moapa dace. The small fish is commonly found throughout the headwaters of the Muddy River system. Dace populations were in decline due to habitat destruction and modification. Competition with introduced species such as mosquitofish and shortfin molly, as well as the appearance of non-native tilapia, contributed to the dace’s decline. As more and more habitat is restored and non-native species are removed, the fish is rebounding. Recent population surveys show a healthy increase in numbers. The dace are counted twice each year. Scientists snorkel through every reach and tally the dace they see. The most recent count, conducted August 6-7, 2013, determined there were 1,727 Moapa dace in the streams — roughly 46 percent more dace than were counted in August 2012.

Due to its small size, fragile habitats, and on-going restoration work, the wildlife refuge is only open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in the fall, winter and spring. During those times, visitors can follow trails that offer glimpses of the Moapa dace and other aquatic wildlife, as well as panoramic views of the refuge and the adjacent Warm Springs Natural Area.

Joshua trees at Desert NWR. USFWS Photo/Cyndi Souza
Joshua trees at Desert NWR. USFWS Photo/Cyndi Souza

Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge is in central Lincoln County, 90 miles north of Las Vegas. The refuge was established in 1963 under the authority of the Migratory Bird Conservation Act to protect habitat for migrating birds in the Pahranagat Valley.

The 5,382-acre refuge consists of marshes, meadows, lakes, and upland desert habitat. It is located in the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south migratory route through the western United States.

It provides nesting, resting, and feeding areas for waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, and song birds (including the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher). Nourished by the waters of Crystal and Ash Springs, the refuge offers ideal wetlands and riparian habitats for thousands of migratory birds, birds of prey, deer, and rare fish.

Pahranagat NWR’s many recreational opportunities will bring visitors into close proximity with this diverse array of wildlife.

Notably, 264 bird species have been recorded on the refuge, making it a popular destination for birders and photographers.

Hiking trails cross through five different habitat types, giving visitors the opportunity to see meadows, marshes, lakes, streams and desert within a single afternoon visit. Hunting and fishing are also popular activities, and for those interested in experiencing this desert oasis at night, camping is available at Upper Pahranagat Lake.

Millions of people come to Las Vegas each year for the entertainment and bright lights on the Strip. If you are looking for something a little different, please consider visiting one of the national wildlife refuges in southern Nevada. If you plan such a day trip, prepare to be surprised by what you see.

Dan Balduini is the public affairs officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex and Southern Nevada Fish and Wildlife Office. He has nearly 40 years of communications experience in broadcast journalism and public affairs. He joined FWS in April 2009.

How You Can Help

With budgets continuing to shrink, the Desert Complex relies heavily on volunteers to help with the important work on the refuges. Volunteers assist staff with everything from visitor services and environmental education to habitat restoration and maintenance. Desert Complex volunteers contributed 21,714 hours in FY2012 — equivalent to more than 10 full-time employees. Those interested in volunteering are encouraged to contact Harry Konwin via email (, or by telephone (702-515-5494). Another way to get involved is to join the Friends of the Desert National Wildlife Refuges). This private organization is dedicated to supporting the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in southern Nevada through advocacy, stewardship, and outreach.