What's Out There?

Honoring Native Land

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge has stood at the nexus of an important crossroads for Native peoples for countless generations. Recent discoveries in New Mexico indicate the ancestors of Native Americans walked upon North American soil at least 23,000 years ago. The earliest indicators of human activity in the area include Clovis and stem spear points found in the Las Vegas Wash believed to date to a period of climatic transition between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago. Today the Desert National Wildlife Refuge is recognized as an area of cultural importance and an integral part of the traditional life ways for Newe (Western Shoshone), Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute), and Nuwuwu (Chemehuevi), cultures that have historically relied on nomadic hunting gathering and seasonal farming. 



The first EuroAmerican to observe the mountains of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge was likely Jedediah Smith during his trek to California from Bear Lake in 1826. By following bits and pieces of the routes used by the Franciscan missionaries of the late 1700s, Smith most likely connected the routes of the 1776-1777 Dominguez-Escalante wanderings through Utah and Arizona with the southern route between Mexico and California established by Francisco Garces in 1774.  Smith's route most like followed the Native American trails in the area and brought him through what would become Nevada, striking west from the Virgin River near the Moapa Valley and following down the eastern flank of the future Desert National Wildlife Refuge to the meadows of Las Vegas.  In 1829-1830 Antonio Amijio pioneered route that followed the the Virgin River down to the Colorado River, then turned west near Las Vegas Wash.  The Main Northern Route gave travelers the option of following Smiths's Route along the eastern flanks of the Las Vegas Range, or following Amijiio's route along the Colorado River to Las Vegas.  The name for this route, "The Old Spanish Trail," was bestowed by John C. Fremont in his 1848 Report for his 1844 U.S. Topographical Corps surveys.

Both the Sheep Range and the Las Vegas Range were established as the Vegas Nation Forest in 1907, only to lose Forest Service status in 1918.  By 1936, it became apparent that the bighorn sheep of the area needed special protection. The Desert Game Range was formed by executive order in 1936 and included nearly the entirety of the current Desert National Wildlife Refuge, most of Mount Charleston, and a substantial part of today's Red Rock National Recreation Area. In 1966 the Desert Game Range was abolished and a much reduced Desert National Wildlife Refuge was establish north of US 95. Approximately 600,000 acres of the southern portion of the Desert Game Range were stripped of primary wildlife management.

Unfortunately since portions of the Desert Refuge were temporarily withdrawn for military training during World War II, continued renewal and ever-escalating expansion of military operations has overtaken nearly half the existing Refuge. Public access is no longer allowed in the Desert-Pintwater Range, the Spotted Range, portions of the East Desert Range, and portions of the Hole in the Rock proposals. As recent as 2017, the military proposed to expand even farther into the public access portions of the Desert Refuge and take primary jurisdiction away from the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service for the areas they use for training. This would undermine nearly 120 years of protection for this important wildlife habitat. Wilderness destination will stop the military from seizing comprehensive authority over the refuge and stop the incremental military expansion into areas current used for public access.

For more information about the Conservation History of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, see the Additional Resources Tab on the left.


Natural History



Typical of the Basin and Range province, the Desert National Wildlife Refuge (DNWR) is characterized by a series of north/south trending mountain ranges separated by broad valleys. The Basin and Range province was shaped by tectonic extension that began in the Early Miocene. Most of the rocks within the DNWR are ancient Paleozoic carbonate rocks mixed with shales and quartzite.  Volcanic rocks, featuring basalts, tuffs and ash-fall sedimentary rocks are found only in the northern most part of the refuge and date to the Quaternary-Tertiary.  The sun-baked nature of the landscape and vertical walls expose a dizzying-diversity of rock outcrops throughout the refuge and create a kaleidoscope of colors and textures that change with every hour with the shifting sunlight and drifting clouds. 

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge also contains fossils the strange animals that wandered though the area during the Pleistocene epoch, from 2 million to 10,000 years ago. Some of the rocks within the refuge are extremely ancient dating all the way back to the Proterozoic.  

Many animals call the Desert National Wildlife Refuge home in eluding 53 species of Mammals, 53 species of mammals, 30 species of reptiles, and 250+ species of birds. A comprehensive list of the wildlife species within the Refuge can be found at the DNWR Website


Desert National Wildlife Refuge Life Zones
Over 500 species of plants can be found within the DNWR as a result of the diversity of the seven distinct life zones and associated ecosystems found in Refuge: 

Saltbrush Community
Below 2,400 feet (700 m)
In some basins on the valley floors, particularly those with low nocturnal temperatures and very high soil salinity, the saltbrush community predominates. A good example of this community can be found on the valley floor between Corn Creek Field Station and Highway 95.

Creosote Bush Community
2,400-3,600 feet (700-1,100 m)
This open scrubland dominated by the creosote bush consists of widely spaced shrubs and various cacti. Other common species include Mojave yucca, bursage, and range ratney. This community receives less than 5" of rain per year.

Joshua Tree Woodland
3,000-5,000 feet (900-1,500 m)
The apparently dominant species in this habitat type is the Joshua tree, although the bulk of plant material consists of a variety of widely spaced shrubs known as the understory.

Blackbrush Community
4,200-6,000 feet (1,300-1,800 m)
This community dominated by blackbrush is found on steep rolling hills. Soils are typically shallow. Different species of yucca, including Joshua tree, Mormon tea, and cholla cactus are common here.

Pinyon-Juniper Woodland
6,000-7,500 feet (1,800-2,300 m)
This open canopy forest occurs where precipitation may be 10–15" per year, much of which is received as snow. Utah juniper and single-leaf pinyon pine dominate this community that forms a zone between brush and true forest.

Pine-Fir Forest
7,500-9,000 feet (2,300-2,750 m)
Where snow and rain linger, ponderosa pine and white fir are dominant. They form well developed, nearly closed canopy forests.

Bristlecone Pine
Near 10,000 feet (3,000 m)
Where the growing seasons are the shortest, the only trees surviving the extreme conditions are the bristlecone pines. These very long lived trees are found in the Sheep Mountain Range.