The Red Desert

The Red Desert of southern Wyoming is one of the last high-desert ecosystems in North America. Its varied landscape of buttes, dunes, sagebrush steppe, mountains, and rocky pinnacles is home to some of the continent's most hidden treasures. Among these treasures is the largest living dune system in the United States, and the largest migratory herd of pronghorn in the lower 48 states. The Red Desert is also home to the world's largest herd of desert elk. At the desert's heart is the Great Divide Basin—a large depression along the Continental Divide from which surface water does not flow out to either the Atlantic or the Pacific.


Long before European settlers arrived, the region played a significant role in the lives of Native Americans, including the Shoshone and Ute tribes. Rock art from the region dates back more than 11,000 years. The Red Desert's unique features helped guide hundreds of thousands of pioneers on the Oregon Trail towards their destinations in Oregon, California, and Washington. In some places, their tracks are still visible. Riders for the Pony Express and the United States' first transcontinental railroad passed through the Red Desert. Today Interstate 80 bisects the region.

In the Red Desert, people can enjoy bird and wildlife watching, hiking and camping, horseback riding, mountain biking, pronghorn and elk hunting, and a remarkable complex of active sand dunes. Cattle and sheep graze on its rangelands. It's also a source of natural resources, including oil, natural gas, coal, coalbed methane, and minerals such as uranium.


The Red Desert is home to 350 species of wildlife and many more plant species that have adapted to its harsh conditions. The world's largest herd of desert elk; 50,000 pronghorn; and rare plant and bird species can all be found here. Most of the Red Desert is actually sagebrush steppe—habitat for pronghorn, elks, and pygmy rabbits. It also has rivers and springs, and mountains covered in aspens and conifers. Its dune regions actually help to store snowmelt with temporary ponds, providing habitat for swans, ducks, plovers, and even tiny freshwater shrimp.

Many species of birds, including raptors, waterbirds, and shorebirds, can be found in the Red Desert at different times of year. Interesting Red Desert birds include the rare mountain plover, greater sage-grouse, burrowing owl, white-faced ibis, golden eagle, ferruginous hawk, Brewer's sparrow, sage sparrow, and sage thrasher.

The Red Desert is home to many species of mammals, large and small, both predator and prey—including the desert elk, pronghorn, pygmy rabbit, mountain lion, mule deer, white-footed mouse, wild horse, coyote, badger, white-tailed prairie dog, and Wyoming's only population of the endangered black-footed ferret.

Threats & Conservation

Energy Development

Wyoming is rich in natural resources, including coal, oil, natural gas, coalbed methane, and minerals such as uranium—all of which may potentially be found in the Red Desert. The majority of the Red Desert has no legal protection, and is therefore open to oil and gas exploration and development, along with the accompanying roads, pipelines, fences, truck traffic, and utility lines. There is also renewed interest in mining for uranium, with all of its potential radioactive hazards. The construction and resource extraction in the area fragments wildlife habitats and disrupts elk, pronghorn, and mule deer migration, as well as scars the landscape and pollutes the air and water.


Friends of the Red Desert
Wildlife in Wyoming, Voice for the Wild

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Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

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