Former Nuclear Lands Now Protecting Wildlife

Aug 20, 2019

Wild animals are protected within dozens of wildlife refuges across the Mountain West. But some of those areas are contaminated, because they used to be nuclear sites.

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada is one of the largest wildlife refuges in the country, and it's also the largest remaining intact habitat for Desert Bighorn Sheep. But, it sits right next to the Nevada Test Site, a famous atomic bomb testing area.

"We are concerned about potential contaminants, primarily from the past testing on the nuclear site. We don't know how that's impacting the sheep at this point," says Kevin DesRoberts, who manages the refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This particular refuge is only next to contaminated land. The Associated Press recently did an analysis of six former nuclear sites that are now converted to wildlife refuges, with two of those in the Mountain West. The study found that plants and animals are flourishing there, because public access has been cut off.

The analysis also found that more than $57 billion have been spent cleaning up the six sites, but there's little research to show what, if any, health risks remain.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.