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Lahontan Valley Wetlands

Site Facts

Country, State, Province/Region:

United States, Nevada

Relative Location:

In Nevada's high desert, about 80 miles from Reno


39 30' N, 118 30' W



Basis for Designation:

More than 250,000 shorebirds annually and 150,000 Long-billed Dowitchers


89,031 hectares (220,000 acres)


May 1988

Site Owner/Steward:

Nevada Dept of Wildlife, Truckee Carson Irrigation District, U.S Bureau of Reclamation, U.S Fish and Wildlife

Site Partners:


Human Population within 100 km:



Nancy Hoffman
Project Leader
Stillwater NWRC

Jenni Jeffers
Staff Biologist
Nevada Department of Wildlife



Stillwater NWR
Photo by Monica Iglecia

A complex of wetlands, of which Stillwater Wildlife Management Area, Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, and Carson Lake Pasture are the most important for shorebirds. Area consists mainly of fresh and alkaline marshes varying from several centimeters to a meter in depth. These are dependent upon return flows from irrigation projects.

In good years, the area hosts about 250,000 shorebirds. Several censuses by Paul Lehman and Steve Thompson (USFWS) during dry years (1987-1988) revealed numbers in the 50,000-125,000 range. 

Ecology & Conservation

Stillwater Wildlife Management Area (SWMA), is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge (SNWR) is managed for the purpose of:

1. maintaining and restoring natural areas 

2. providing for the conservation and management of fish and wildlife and their habitats

3. fulfilling the international treaty obligations of the U.S. with respect to fish and wildlife, and

4. providing opportunities for scientific research, environmental education, and fish and wildlife oriented recreation.

The Carson Lake and Pasture Area is administered by the Bureau of Reclamation, with a long-term lease to TCID which provides cattle grazing on an annual permit basis.


Prolonged drought has forced water users to be even more efficient in their water applications, leaving little drain water available for wildlife use. However, prime water purchases for the wetlands are up to 29,000 acre feet, and is split 18,960 and 8,040 acre feet between Stillwater NWR and Carson Lake Pasture respectively. Negotiations concerning the transfer of Carson Lake to state ownership still continue.

Current Threats:

Limited prime water rights (27,000 af) are now available for use on Stillwater NWR and Carson Lake Pasture. Use of upstream water for agricultural purposes effects drainwater flows returning to the wetlands. There drainwater flows continue to decline while increasing in contaminants.

Research and Management:

Congress has appropriated funds (approximately $16 million) for the purchase of water rights from willing sellers within the Lahontan Valley, since 1989. Acquisitions of water rights has in many cases included lands that will be incorporated into the Stillwater NWR. The Nevada Waterfowl Association purchased the first water rights for Stillwater NWR in 1990.

In 1992 western Nevada suffered its sixth consecutive year of drought, devastating habitats for migratory and nesting shorebirds and waterfowl. Shorebird counts conducted as part of Point Reyes Bird Observatory's Flyway Project hit record lows in 1992. Yet, thanks to U.S. Public Law 101.618, which took effect on November 16, 1990, the purchase of water rights for wetlands in the Lahontan Valley was authorized. This Public Law mandated that water rights be acquired and conveyed to support on a long-term average, 10,100 hectares (25,000 acres) of primary wetland habitats within the Lahontan Valley at the following locations: Stillwater NWR, Carson Lake Pasture and Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Indian Reservation wetlands. This expanded Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge to include 31,385 hectares (77,520 acres) under the sole stewardship of the USFWS, and authorized the transfer of Carson Lake to the state of Nevada for the purpose of establishing a state wildlife refuge, provided that it be managed in a manner consistent with applicable international agreements and designation of the area as a component of the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network.


Nancy Hoffman
Project Leader
Stillwater NWRC
1000 Auction Road
Fallon, NV 89406
Phone: (775) 423-5128 x233

Jenni Jeffers
Staff Biologist
Nevada Department of Wildlife
1100 Valley Road
Reno, NV 89512
Phone: (775) 688-1525
Fax: (775) 688-1595

Additional Resources

 Alberico, J.A. 1991. Drought and predation cause avocet and stilt breeding failure in Nevada. 18 pp. M.S. Thesis, Progress Report, University of Nevada, Reno.

Fowler, Cahterine S. 1992. In the Shadow of Fox Peak. U.S. Government Printing Office and environmental Impact statement, Water Rights Acquisition for Lahontan Valley Wetlands. 1996. USFWS.

Herron, Gary B., editor. 1988-1994. Population Surveys, Species Distribution, and Key Habitats of Selected Nongame species: Job 2, Water Bird and Shorebird Investigations. Job Performance Report, Project W-53-R-20. Nevada Divisiion of Wildlife.

James, L. Hainline. 1974. Distribution, migration, and breeding of shorebirds in Western Nevada. M.S. Thesis, University of Nevada, Reno.

Osugi, K., and M. Barber. 1972-1977. Monitoring program of wildlife habitat and associated use in the Truckee-Carson irrigation district, Nevada. Progress reports No. 1-6, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Stanton, J. 1988. The general feeding and nesting ecology of Black-necked Stilts on the Stillwater Wildlife Management Area. Research report submitted to Stillwater NWR.

Thompson, S.P. and K. L. Merritt. 1988. Western Nevada wetlands history and current status. In Nevada Public Affairs Review, No. 1 (R. Bless and P. Goin, eds.) University of Nevada, Reno.