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Groups Fight to Keep Desert National Wildlife Refuge Intact

Nevada's Desert National Wildlife Refuge, largest in the lower 48 states, is home to desert bighorn sheep and other wildlife. (
Nevada's Desert National Wildlife Refuge, largest in the lower 48 states, is home to desert bighorn sheep and other wildlife. (
May 20, 2020

LAS VEGAS -- Conservation groups say Nevada eventually could lose its Desert National Wildlife Refuge north of Las Vegas if Congress approves a request from the U.S. Air Force to expand its sprawling military range.

Russell Kulhman, executive director of the Nevada Wildlife Federation, said the proposal to add acreage to the Nevada Test and Training Range would dramatically shrink the number of acres for recreation, and possibly threaten the area's bighorn sheep population. He said every couple of decades, the Air Force requests more space on the refuge, reducing the public's access to bird watching, hiking, backpacking and camping.

"In another 20 or 40 years, there really won't be a refuge," he said. "Obviously, the mission comes first for their priorities and wildlife will be secondary."

The Air Force wants sole jurisdiction over 1 million of the 1.6 million acres. If approved by Congress, Kuhlman warned it would exclude wildlife officials from managing the refuge because they would be denied access. U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., has introduced compromise legislation on the issue. Cortez Masto's bill also would designate a Tribal Resource Officer to work with the Air Force and the Wildlife Federation to protect culturally relevant resources on the land.

For 84 years, Kuhlman said, volunteer conservationists largely have managed the refuge. They've helped restore a herd of bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and other wildlife, and he said those efforts should not be discarded.

"President Franklin Roosevelt designated it in 1936," Kuhlman said. "He, I think, fully thought that he was protecting bighorn sheep habitat. It's really the one species that was on the brink of extinction that we're still trying to bring back."

The legislation would allow the Air Force control over an additional 50,000 refuge acres for training troops and testing weapons, rather than two-thirds of the property it has requested. One analysis showed Nevada's recreational economy would lose more than $2 million if more of the refuge is turned over to the military.

The text of Senate bill S.3145 is online at

Disclosure: National Wildlife Federation contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Endangered Species & Wildlife, Energy Policy, Environment, Public Lands/Wilderness, Salmon Recovery, Water. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Roz Brown, Public News Service - NV