The network of wildlife refuges included in the National Wildlife Refuge System is managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. They are administered as a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.
Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is included in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Though it officially became a national wildlife refuge in 1975, this landscape has been managed for the benefit of wildlife since 1939 when it was established as a ‘Game Range’ and managed for desert bighorn sheep. The refuge, which encompasses 860,000 acres of Sonoran desert and is the 3rd largest National Wildlife Refuge outside of Alaska, is open to the public for wildlife related activities including wildlife watching and photography, primitive camping, limited hunting, and environmental education and interpretation.
Over 800,000 acres of the refuge is wilderness, designated under the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act of 1990. This made Cabeza Prieta Wilderness the largest designated wilderness within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service within the contiguous 48 states.
The refuge contains seven rugged mountain ranges separated by broad flat valleys of creosote-bursage that is dissected by desert washes covered with mesquite, palo-verde and ironwood. Lava flows as old as two million years extend into the south-central portion of the refuge, an extension of the geologically famous Pinacate volcanic field in Sonora, Mexico. Far from a barren desert, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge harbors nearly 400 plant species. For thousands of years, runoff from the mountains during summer monsoons and winter rains eroded into the valleys below bringing sand, silt and gravel. These soils support the plant community known as the creosote bursage flats, broad flats on gently sloping hillsides that support creosote bushes, white bursage, mesquite, palo verde, ironwood, ocotillo and an abundance of cacti, including cholla, and saguaro. Depending on the amount of rain the desert receives during the fall and winter, the spring flower show can be spectacular with more than 30 species flowering at once.
The refuge is home to more than 275 different species of wildlife. Endangered Sonoran pronghorn and lesser long-nosed bats call this parched land home, as do desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and many other species of lizards, snakes, and even a few toads. Many birds migrate through the area during spring and fall. The migrating warblers, swallows and flycatchers find food and shelter along the refuge’s vegetation-lined washes. Others birds reside here year-round, including elf owls that peer from holes carved in the saguaros by Gila woodpeckers.
The refuge also contains critical prehistoric and historic cultural resources. Ethnographically, the refuge is the homeland of the Hia C-ed O’odham. Traditionally, the Hia C-ed O’odham were a hunting/gathering populations, living in small, dispersed bands throughout the refuge. Historic sites are primarily early 20th century ranching and mining camps and prospecting strikes.
The refuge does contain the El Camino del Diablo trail district which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. This National Historic District is a 1 mile wide corridor centered on the original trail used by travelers in the region. The name El Camino del Diablo “the Devil’s Highway” first appears in historical records from the 1850s, and was likely coined by prospectors on their way to California gold fields. It earned its name as the most deadly immigrant trail where over 400 travelers perished over the years. To this day, people from all over the world travel to the refuge to drive or walk the ‘El Camino’.
Today, the refuge’s management priorities are focused on recovery and monitoring of endangered Sonoran pronghorn and lesser long-nosed bat; monitoring bighorn sheep populations; controlling invasive plants; maintaining the refuge wilderness character; and providing visitor opportunities to recreate and hunt, along with environmental education outreach efforts.