Bighorn sheep, © Byron Hukee

Take Refuge: Desert National Wildlife Refuge Under Attack

Dangerous Congressional rider would upend management of one of our largest wildlife refuges.

The word refuge usually means something safe and secure. Few would associate the term with a military training ground.

At approximately 1.6 million acres, the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada is the largest wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states. President Franklin D. Roosevelt first established the area as the Desert Game Range in 1936 to protect desert bighorn sheep. Now a refuge, it provides habitat for hundreds of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, as well as rare plant species. This treasured landscape also lies within the ancestral homeland of Native Americans, preserving cultural relics and tribal history.

For all the wildlife that call the Desert Refuge home, it also supports another unique desert dweller: the United States Air Force.

In 1940, during the early stages of World War II, the Air Force began using a portion of the refuge as an aerial bombing and gunnery range. Military activities continue on the refuge today, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Air Force sharing responsibilities for managing approximately 846,000 acres in the western region of the refuge. This amounts to more than half the entire refuge, and includes large swaths of ecologically valuable Great Basin and Mojave Desert habitat.

While military use of a refuge is not ideal, the existing management partnership between the FWS and the Air Force helps ensure that wildlife and other public values are considered when the military plans training exercises in Desert Refuge.

Unfortunately, a few in Congress want to give full control of the western half of the refuge to the Air Force, shutting out FWS from its duties to manage wildlife and their habitat on the refuge. This spring, they attached a legislative rider to the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to do the deed, even though the Air Force never requested any such thing. The rider would waive environmental safeguards for half of the refuge – hundreds of thousands of acres. It would also prevent FWS from acting to protect sensitive species or habitat on those lands, and discourage Congress from designating any of the area as wilderness. Handing over management to the Air Force is both unnecessary and sets a harmful precedent that could impact national wildlife refuges across the country.

Defenders is fighting to remove the Desert Refuge rider from the NDAA. Both the House and the Senate have already passed versions of the legislation, and the Senate’s does not include the damaging rider. We are working to ensure that Congress strips out the attack on this cherished wildlife refuge when they reconcile the two NDAA bills this summer.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is the only network of federal lands established specifically for wildlife conservation. It is critical that, even where other uses are authorized, Congress uphold the primary purpose of the system, including rejecting the Desert Refuge rider.

This blog is part of an ongoing series on our National Wildlife Refuge System and the vital role that refuges play in protecting species and providing crucial habitat for wildlife. Check in regularly to hear from our field teams, policy experts and staff on Capitol Hill about new developments and continuing threats to these wild places and what you can do to help.

Keeping Alaska’s Refuges for Wildlife

The state of Alaska is pursuing aggressive “predator control” measures on our national wildlife refuges, targeting bears, wolves and other wildlife on land that was meant for their conservation.

Learn More »

12 Responses to “Take Refuge: Desert National Wildlife Refuge Under Attack”

  1. Adrienne Neff

    Please keep these special areas safe and unmolested by fracking, hunting, mining, logging, oil rigs or any other man made assault such as military training! Insane. Not on our public lands!

  2. Anita Bruce

    Please protect the irreplaceable National Wildlife Refuge and recognize its value as a National Treasure as are the creatures who call it home. Stop taking it and areas such as this for granted and stop exploiting them as our environment is suffering from too much poisoning now from man-made disasters and irresponsible actions.

  3. Diane Manley

    Please leave these acres as they are, a pristine sanctuary.Our species has ruined and abused so much, please leave this area alone.

  4. Sandy Shikany

    Please cancel the Desert Refuge rider. The Air Force had not asked for this controversial move. The refuge was established as a wildlife sanctuary, not for commercial destructive corporate interests!

  5. Graeme

    Go play with your weapons somewhere else. Your need to kill and destroy must not affect this reserve.

  6. Deborah Sullivan

    Please leave these areas alone. We are pushing wildlife into a smaller & smaller area. Do you wish to make them extinct because you are stealing their homes?Look back at history &I see what happened to the American Indians when you did this. Learn from the past . Leave open land for our children & our children’s children. Don’t let animals only be alive in captivity. How would you like to be moved from your home?

  7. John

    Air Force, You already stoled the property from the Sheahan Family last year, You keep stealing and stealing land. You have enough land already to play your killing games. Why don’t you go practice in Iran, Leave the little land we have left for the American people to enjoy ! Harry Reid, another sleazy politician.

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