Sheldon - A Wildlife Wonderland
Table of Contents
Sheldon Refuge Overview
Tucked away in remote northwestern Nevada, Sheldons vast
beauty can take your breath away. Birds of prey ride thermals along spectacular
cliffs and deep gorges; high volcanic tables of grass, sage and wildflowers rise
above the surrounding landscape like forts, dotted with small lakes and archaeological
wonders; mother antelope nuzzle their young; and vistas so broad you can almost feel
them. Created back in the 1930s to provide habitat for pronghorn antelope, this
refuge encompasses 572,876 acres of high desert sagebrush-steppe ecosystem. It is
here that many species find refuge from development pressures.
Today, the Sheldon and its sister refuge to the north,
Oregons Hart Mountain preserve our best remaining tracts of the sagebrush-steppe
ecosystem. In addition to the incredible opportunities the Sheldon offers for solitude,
remote beauty and primitive and unconfined recreation, the Sheldon is rich in native
wildlife and plant species.
The refuge also has a long history starting with pre-historic
fossils and plants. Native Americans used the Sheldon area and left petroglyphs,
stone tools, camp sites and other evidence of their past. Historic homesteads and
ranches like the Last Chance Ranch, Kinney Camp and the Pruett Ranch are all a
testament to the hardy pioneers and ranchers that lived and worked here for many
years. During the 1930s and 40s, over a thousand Civilian Conservation Corps
employees lived at Camp Sheldon and many of the structures they built are still
A large portion of the Sheldon Refuge was identified as having
wilderness character. The Wilderness Act of 1964 required national wildlife refuges
and game ranges lands to be reviewed for wilderness values. These reviews were conducted
in the early 1970s and the agencys recommendation (8 units totaling 341,500 acres)
was passed on to the President and Congress.
The Rye Creek unit covers the
north half of the old Little Sheldon. Here bighorn sheep live along the stunning
escarpment that marks the refuges western boundary. The less dramatic,
but no less beautiful, eastern side of the WSA has some of the best habitat for
pronghorn and sage grouse. The historic Last Chance Ranch building is just on
the southern boundary.
Round Mountain and Round
Butte form the core of this area nestled just south of the Oregon border.
Bighorn sheep can be found here along with pronghorn and sage grouse. Giant
junipers are scattered among the bitterbrush, native grasses and mountain
mahogany. Large ephemeral springs and Round Mountain Lake provide good water
sources for wildlife. Catnip Reservoir sits just to the south of this unit.
These rolling hills provide
a corridor for wildlife moving seasonally up to Big Springs Table. Not
surprisingly, sage grouse use these Sagehen Hills, especially on the western
Big Spring Table
Big Spring Table is
the hub of the refuge from a wildlife standpoint. About 11-17 miles across and
six miles wide, Big Springs Table rises out of Big Springs Reservoir almost
1,000 feet. Basin lakes are scattered across the broad central table. Bighorn
sheep relish the steep, rocky bluffs along the southern boundary. Railroad point,
a five-mile-long basalt finger, forms the very eastern edge of the unit and is an
important area for peregrines, eagles and other cliff nesters.
Gooch Table is the heart
of the refuge. Rockier, with less soil than the other tables, Gooch has a number
of relatively large basin lakes including Pup, Gooch Lake, and Mud Lake. There
are some important sage grouse leks and good forbs due to the higher elevation.
Pockets of aspen provide great wildlife habitat east of Echo Canyon and antelope
heavily use the southern boundary.
The area is dominated by
three main peaks over 7,000 feet: Cat Peak, Nip Peak and Catnip. The views
from the top are spectacular! Good populations of deer make the area popular
with hunters. Several campgrounds are located along the edge of the unit, adding
to the recreation opportunities found here.
This large area is
made up of several very distinct segments including the Fish Creek Mountains to
the north, Devaney Mountain and Blowout Mountain in the central part, and the
twin peaks of Mahogany Mountain to the south. About 17 miles of Virgin Creek
runs through a 500 to 1,000 deep, rugged and incredibly scenic gorge. Rock Spring
Table, the highest table in the refuge, forms the eastern part of the unit. This
area is rich in archeological resources and supports large numbers of antelope.
The rough and rocky Big
Mountain forms the southeastern boundary of the Refuge. Idaho Canyon Gorge,
rising 1000 from canyon floor to rim, cuts through the unit. Bighorn sheep,
mule deer and small groups of antelope are all found here along with
Unfortunately, over the intervening decades, some refuge managers
forgot about their wilderness study areas and built roads, facilities and developments
for livestock and wild horses, etc. within these wild places. Friends of Nevada
Wilderness is working with refuge personnel and our volunteers to undo some of that
Thousand Creek Gorge, Sheldon Refuge (c) Jim Yoakum
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Wildlife and Plants of the Sheldon
The pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) is the reason Sheldon
was created. These beautiful animals with their distinctive white butts, bellies and
throat stripes are the fastest land mammal in North America with speeds over 60 miles
per hour. Pronghorns can cruise at 25-35 miles per hour for sustained periods and
could finish a 26-mile marathon in under an hour. The pronghorns speed and endurance
evolved during the Pliocene and Pleistocene eras when these animals were forced to
outrun cheetahs, wolves and saber-toothed cats. With good quality food available,
the female usually delivers twins in May and these fawns are up and running in no time.
In the early 1800s it is estimated there were 50 million
pronghornin the early 1900s they were almost extinct with 20,000 remaining. Refuges
like Sheldon and Hart were created to protect these magnificent animals. In July 2008,
pronghorn surveys in Sheldon observed 1,883 animals. You can find pronghorn at Swan
Lake feeding on the yellow primroses in the summer.
You will also find California bighorn sheep and mule deer as
well 300 species of vertebrates including the pygmy rabbit and 23 other species of
upland mammals. There are 21 species of upland birds. Most of the birds use the refuge
in summer or visit it on the spring or fall migrations. You can see many species of
waterfowl along with sage grouse, many raptors including the prairie and peregrine
falcons, brewer, black-throated and grasshopper sparrows.
Native fish include the Lahontan cutthroat trout, Alvord
chub, and Sheldon tui chub. About 200 species of invertebrates have been found at
43 wetland sites some of which are rare and only found here. You may see western
rattlesnakes, racers, rubber boa, collared lizards, sagebrush lizard, western fence
lizards and many others. There are 75 species of butterflies.
A vast number of plant species, about 650 have been identified.
Wildflowers abound in the spring and summer with a rainbow of colors. Be sure to bring
along your wildflower identification book.
Refuge History and Purpose
The Charles Sheldon Wildlife Refuge (Little Sheldon) was
established in 1931 (32,600 acres). It started when the Last Chance Ranch was purchased
for the refuge with funding donated by the National Association of Audubon Societies
and the Boone and Crockett Club. In 1936, the Charles Sheldon Antelope Range was created
adding 539,000 acres. When was established almost 80 years ago, enabling language
specified that the Refuge was to be home for 3,500 pronghorn. The refuge was also
to conserve listed endangered or threatened fish, wildlife and plants as well as
be a migratory bird sanctuary.
In the 1970s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquired the
sole jurisdiction of Sheldon Refuge and Range and combined them into one unit, the
Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. When Congress amended the National Wildlife Refuge
System Administration Act in 1997 it incorporated an underlying philosophy that
wildlife comes first on refuges. It also established six priority public uses
wildlife observation and photography, hunting, fishing, interpretation, and
Livestock grazing permits were purchased and retired in 1993,
creating one of the largest and most important blocks of ungrazed sagebrush-steppe
habitat anywhere. Sadly, while permitted livestock have been removed, horse numbers
have increased, damaging many springs and riparian areas, just when climate change
makes these watered areas so important for the survival of wildlife.
Pronghorn antelope, Sheldon Refuge (c) Jim Yoakum
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Refuge Planning Process and Goals
Preparation of the Sheldons comprehensive conservation plan
or CCP for short started in May of 2008 with a series of public meeting and a public
scoping comment period. Friends of Nevada Wilderness attended the meetings and
provided comments. The draft plan and environmental impact statement should be out
for public review during by the end of 2010.
The refuge identified seven preliminary goals for the plan
based on the refuge purpose and polices. These include:
Protect and maintain upland habitats characteristic
of the great basin ecosystem that support pronghorn antelope, greater sage grouse,
pygmy rabbit prairie falcon, etc.
Manage feral horses and burro populations to benefit a
diverse assemblage if native plant and wildlife species.
Restore and maintain wetland habitats characteristic of
the Great Basin Ecosystem.
Protect and manage the Refuges paleontological, prehistoric
and historic resources.
Provide visitors of all interests and abilities opportunities
to experience a variety of high quality wildlife-dependent recreational and educational
Protect and manage the refuges Wilderness Study Areas
Collect scientific information.
For more information on the refuge planning process visit their
website at: http://www.fws.gov/sheldonhartmtn/Sheldon/index.html
Threats to Sheldon Refuge
Being a refuge unfortunately doesnt provide total protection
for the wildlife and their habitat. Threats to the ecological integrity of Sheldon
include: invasive plant and animal species; proposals for pipelines; unregulated mining
activity; proposed uranium mining; illegal vehicle use; poaching; and climate change.
Mining — Unlike most wildlife refuges,
mining is allowed on portions of the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. That was because
it was a former game range and game ranges were not automatically closed to mining.
In 1991, 445,766 acres (about 78%) of the Sheldon Refuge were temporarily withdrawn
from mineral location (that means no longer open to staking mining claims under the
1872 mining law). That temporary mineral withdrawal expires in April 2012 and will
need to be renewed or made permanent. Approximately 65,000 acres of the refuge is
still open to mining.
Recently, Western Energy Exploration staked approximately 72
uranium mining claims on slopes in the Virgin River Valleyone of the most biologically
diverse parts of the refuge. Development of these claims would be devastating for
refuge resources and clearly not in keeping with the intent of the refuge. A
permanent and expanded mineral withdrawal is necessary for development.
OHV Use — While cross county
travel is prohibited in the refuge, many miles of roads have been created over the
years. In the Virgin River Valley, where recreational use is more concentrated (opal
mining, campground, etc.) OHV damage from hill climbs and other off-road use is rapidly
proliferating. The refuge has over 800 miles of roads and two tracks. As part of the
upcoming comprehensive conservation the refuge is evaluating all of the roads, routes
and trails within the refuge to determine if they are necessary for the operation of
the refuge. Those user created routes that are determined to not be necessary could
be restored and would lessen the habitat fragmentation of the refuge.
Invasive Plants and Animals —
Noxious and invasive weeds impact native ecosystems by reducing biodiversity, altering
hydrologic conditions, altering soil characteristics, altering fire intensity and
frequency, competing for pollinators, displacing rare plant species, and replacing
complex communities with simple communities. Some of the invasive weeds on the refuge
include cheatgrass, Russian thistle, diffuse knapweed, perennial pepperweed, field
bindweed and hairy whitetop.
Bullfrogs are an example of an invasive animal. These creatures
will eat anything that will fit in their mouths, significantly affecting the survival
of native species on the refuge.
Sometimes, when numbers of animals get out of control,
significant damage can occur to natural systems. The numbers of feral horses and burros
on the refuge have gotten so high they threaten the health of delicate spring and
riparian systems. They also directly compete for food with the pronghorn mothers in
spring when they desperately need nutrition for their babies.
Breakfast on the range (c) Jim Yoakum
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What you can do
Friends of Nevada Wilderness along with other organizations
and individuals are working with the Refuge staff to identify Stewardship and Restoration
Projects to help the Sheldon heal. Hundreds of miles of obsolete barbwire fences need
to be removed to reduce wildlife injury and improve wildlife access. Additional obsolete
grazing facilities, spring developments, could also be removed or rehabilitated. Many
riparian areas are badly damaged from past livestock grazing and current feral horse
use and need restoration. Some riparian areas have had their woody vegetation component
completely eliminated and re-establishing willows and other woody vegetation back into
these systems is critical for wildlife, especially song birds.
Come on one of the restoration trips and help make this refuge
a better place for the wildlife and the visitors who enjoy the refuge. Get involved
in the refuge planning process. Well keep the site updated on the next comment periods.
The draft plan is expected to be out for public review by year’s end.
wildflower viewing, photography, fishing, hunting, camping, horseback riding, and
hiking are all ways to enjoy the refuge.
Fishing and bird watching occurs at Catnip Reservoir, Big
Spring Reservoir and three ponds. Visitors can camp at 12 fairly primitive campgrounds
scattered around the refuge or at the developed Virgin Valley Campground.
Unrelated to the purpose of the refuge is the well-established
and popular Black Fire Opal mining in the Virgin River Valley portion of the refuge.
The Virgin Valley opal beds are perhaps the most famous gemstone locality in Nevada.
Beautiful multi-hued opal has been formed by replacing wood or other plant material.
For more information on opal rockhounding on the refuge you can visit the following
If you are rockhounding off the commercial claims, you are limited to surface
collection only of up to seven pounds of rock per day.
More about the Sheldon
Fish & Wildlife Service' recommendations for WSAs on the Sheldon (PDF).
Fish & Wildlife Service' planning update flier for the Sheldon (PDF).
here for more info about the Sheldon Antelope Range Wilderness Study Area.
The McFarthest Spot (longest drive to a McDonald's) is in
the Sheldon. Read story:
post #1 and
A quote from the Sheldon's past
The presence of deer, antelope, sage hen and other forms of wildlife
which appear along the route of our work causes momentary distractions among the
boys which might be referred to as serious were it not for the fact that this
situation offers a wonderful opportunity to plead the cause of conservation as
well as education in the habits of these animals and birds.
J. A. Allen
CCC worker at Camp Sheldon, 1936
Pronghorn kid, Sheldon Refuge
(c) Jim Yoakum
Kit fox, Sheldon Refuge
(c) Jim Yoakum
Open uplands of the Sheldon
(c) Jim Yoakum
Sheldon dedication plaque
(c) Jim Yoakum
Thousand Creek Gorge, Sheldon Refuge
(c) Jim Yoakum
A pair of pronghorn antelope, Sheldon Refuge (c) Jim Yoakum
Something to Ponder