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Sheldon - A Wildlife Wonderland

Thank you for your comments

A big THANK YOU goes out to all who sent Sheldon comments to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The process is not finished, and Friends will keep you updated as the Fish and Wildlife Service moves towards finalizing the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge's Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP).

For those who want all the details, lots of information is available from the Fish and Wildlife Service:

Read Fish & Wildlife Service' recommendations for WSAs on the Sheldon (An extract from the CCP document, this six-page PDF describes each wilderness recommendation and shows the areas on a map).

Read Fish & Wildlife Service' planning update flier for the Sheldon (This eight-page PDF gives an overview of the planning process and the alternatives that were considered).

View and download the entire 591-page Draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan and associated EIS for the Sheldon Refuge along with an eight-page planning summary (11MB PDF).


Table of Contents

Sheldon Refuge Overview

Tucked away in remote northwestern Nevada, Sheldon’s 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 1930’s 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, Oregon’s 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 1930’s and 40’s, over a thousand Civilian Conservation Corps employees lived at Camp Sheldon and many of the structures they built are still standing.

Sheldon Wilderness

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 1970’s and the agency’s recommendation (8 units totaling 341,500 acres) was passed on to the President and Congress.




Rye Creek


The Rye Creek unit covers the north half of the old Little Sheldon. Here bighorn sheep live along the stunning escarpment that marks the refuge’s 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


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.

Sagehen Hills


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 side.

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


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.

Catnip Mountain


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.

Alkali Peak


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.

Big Mountain


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 cliff-nesting species.

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 damage.


photo of Thousand Creek Gorge
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 pronghorn’s 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 1800’s it is estimated there were 50 million pronghorn—in the early 1900’s 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 1970’s 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 environmental education.

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.


photo of pronghorn antelope
Pronghorn antelope, Sheldon Refuge (c) Jim Yoakum

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Refuge Planning Process and Goals

Preparation of the Sheldon’s 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 Refuge’s 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 activities.

  • Protect and manage the refuge’s 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 doesn’t 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 Valley—one 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.

photo of pronghorn antelope nursing her kid
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. We’ll keep the site updated on the next comment periods. The draft plan is expected to be out for public review by year’s end.


Wildlife and 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 websites:

Rainbow Ridge Mine

Royal Peacock Opal Mine

Bonanza Opal Mine

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

Read Fish & Wildlife Service' recommendations for WSAs on the Sheldon (PDF).

Read Fish & Wildlife Service' planning update flier for the Sheldon (PDF).

Click 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 #2.


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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


photo of pronghorn antelope kid

Pronghorn kid, Sheldon Refuge
(c) Jim Yoakum


photo of kit fox

Kit fox, Sheldon Refuge
(c) Jim Yoakum


photo of open landscape of the Sheldon

Open uplands of the Sheldon
(c) Jim Yoakum


photo of Sheldon dedication plaque, 1931

Sheldon dedication plaque
(c) Jim Yoakum


photo of Thousand Creek Gorge

Thousand Creek Gorge, Sheldon Refuge
(c) Jim Yoakum


photo of a pair of pronghorn antelope

A pair of pronghorn antelope, Sheldon Refuge (c) Jim Yoakum


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