Filed Under The Environment

Desert National Wildlife Refuge and Competing Agendas in Nevada

Desert National Wildlife Refuge encompasses a large portion of southern Nevada, spanning from Area 51 to the northern tip of the greater Las Vegas area, and is part of a wildlife refuge complex protecting Nevada’s unique and rare species. However, the Nevada desert offers promising opportunities for many, and the contest for its usage is seemingly never-ending.

Desert National Wildlife Refuge (Desert NWR), the largest national wildlife refuge in the contiguous United States, spans vast tracts of land in Nevada. Adjacent to the Nevada Nuclear Test Site and overlapping the Nellis Air Force Range, the refuge and surrounding preserves form the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex, home to several rare and endangered species such as the Devils Hole pupfish. Though established to preserve Nevada’s natural landscape, various interest groups in the region are in continual conflict over how to use Desert NWR, some sharing its preservationist goals and some not.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service created Desert NWR in 1936 primarily to protect desert bighorn sheep. In doing so, the government also recognized southern Nevada’s high biodiversity and varied desert environments, from the oasis of Ash Meadows to the landscape of the Great Basin. However, not all shared this appreciation. When military officials searched for a place to test nuclear weapons in the wake of World War II, they chose Nevada’s “wasteland” as the site that would generate the least collateral damage. The Nuclear Test Site settled in Nye County, Nevada in 1951, coming to rest on land that the Shoshone people had called home for millennia.

The Western Shoshone Nation quickly challenged the military’s appropriation, pointing to the terms set in the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley. Though the US government had acknowledged Shoshone sovereignty in the region, they still asserted that their nuclear agendas took precedent. In addition to the Western Shoshone’s rights to the land, the environmental impact of nuclear testing quickly became a pressing issue due to how far wind carried radioactive remnants of bomb tests. The Test Site terminated above-ground testing in the 1990s and fully closed in 2010. In the late 2010s and early 2020s, however, the federal government continued to encroach on the refuge’s land. Conflicts about the nearby Air Force range have proposed both expanding and withdrawing its reaches, with the debate still ongoing. The presidency of Donald Trump even reopened discussions on the proposed nuclear waste site at nearby Yucca Mountain.

The prevalent and continued debate over Nevada desert land shares fundamental elements with many land rights conversations in the West. Paiute and Shoshone presence within the Refuge confines is impossible to ignore, especially with petroglyphs and sacred sites scattered across the landscape. Military presence also touches upon another sensitive topic in Western states—the overwhelming amount of federally-owned land. Much of the strong Nevadan opposition to test site expansion stems from resentment towards the government, as many feel that the state government should maintain more dominion over local land. Yet the state itself continues to violate the dominion of those who have used the land far longer than any Nevada citizen. For a so-called wasteland, the deserts of southern Nevada draw much attention.


Petrogylphs at Desert NWR
Petrogylphs at Desert NWR Petroglyphs found in Nevada’s Fortymile Canyon. These particular petroglyphs lie within the Nevada Test Site’s boundaries. Source: Courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Field Office, 1996. Via Wikimedia Commons ( Creator: National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Field Office
Overlapping lands
Overlapping lands A map of federal lands in southern Nevada. The outline of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge is just visible, showing its overlap with the westernmost portion of Nellis Air Force Range. Notably, the Amargosa Desert and Death Valley lie just beyond the range’s reaches. Source:

“Federal Lands in Southern Nevada.” Finlay McWalter, 2005. Via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 (

Creator: Finlay McWalter
The Devils Hole Pupfish
The Devils Hole Pupfish In 2016, two inebriated men purposely crashed their truck near Devils Hole and disturbed pupfish nests, causing population numbers to plummet into the low dozens. Source:

“Captive Devils Hole Pupfish.” Ryan Hagerty, 2017. Courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service,

Creator: Ryan Hagerty
Land for all life
Land for all life Joshua trees line the landscape of Desert NRW. These yucca provide valuable habitats for several native species of bird, reptile, and mammal, and human inhabitants of the Mojave have long used its gifts for food and weaving. Source:

Desert National Wildlife Refuge.” December 13, 2010. Courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service,


16001 Corn Creek Road, Las Vegas, NV 89124 | The Corn Creek Visitor Center of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge


Len Truelsen, Northern Arizona University, “Desert National Wildlife Refuge and Competing Agendas in Nevada,” Intermountain Histories, accessed May 20, 2024,