Center for Biological Diversity Deserts

Algodones Dunes, California

Center Launches Website Aimed at Protecting the Sonoran Desert National Monument

Center for Biological Diversity Endorses Conserving Arizona’s Future, The State Land Reform Initiative


Desert Stuff for Kids

Myths of Desert Peoples

The Center for Biological Diversity is deeply committed to protecting desert wilderness in North America. We focus our desert programs on the protection of endangered species and imperiled watersheds, as well as high-value ecological areas urgently threatened by urban sprawl.


Deserts-the world's driest places-are a wellspring of primeval myth in cultures from ancient Egypt to contemporary America, from Hebrew creation stories to those of the Apache, the Hopi, and the Navajo. In spite of their aridity, deserts bring forth miraculous life, both in reality and in legend-burning bushes, manna falling from heaven. In the desert faith is tested, the spirit is renewed, and God speaks to man. Moses received the Ten Commandments in the desert; Jesus spent 40 days in the desert after his baptism, eating nothing and living among the "wild beasts." According to Muslim historians, Mohammed was born in the Arabian desert in 571-meaning that desert images, creation myths, symbols and legends are central to all three of the world's major monotheistic religions.


In climate terms, deserts are places with low precipitation-under 10 inches a year-and high evaporation rates. The four great American deserts lie in the basins between the Rocky Mountains on the east and the Sierra Nevada on the west, and range from cold deserts like the high-elevation Great Basin to the hot southern deserts, where temperatures often exceed 100º F: the Mohave, the Sonoran, and the Chihuahuan.

Although all desert plants and animals are remarkable for their ability to survive in a landscape of searing drought, high winds and extreme heat and cold, the landscapes and flora and fauna of the four American deserts are distinct from each other. The Great Basin, where half the precipitation falls in the form of snow, has low animal diversity, with grasses dominating in the north, and lacks the abundant cactus species of the southern deserts. The Mohave, often seen as a transition zone between the Great Basin and Sonora, has total rainfall under 6 inches; its famous Joshua trees, a species of yucca, can reach 50 feet high. The Mohave encompasses the notorious Nevada Test Site, where hundreds of nuclear bombs were exploded in the 1950s and 60s, and boasts a rich complement of reptiles and invertebrates, with several tarantulas, more than ten kinds of scorpions, and the endangered Desert Tortoise.

Joshua Tree - Br. Alfred Brousseau, Saint Mary's College

The Chihuahuan desert ranges in elevation from 1000 to 6500 feet, and features, among other spectacular landscapes, the shifting white gypsum dunes of the White Sands National Monument. Its creosote bush, yucca, and agave-dotted hills are home to numerous lizards, javelinas, kit and gray foxes, and the beautiful, large-eyed ringtail. Finally, the subtropical Sonoran desert-a young desert that has been inhabited for 12,000 years by native peoples and is full of as-yet unexcavated archeological sites-is by far the most biologically diverse of the four. Its giant columnar saguaro cacti develop their first arm at age 50 and typically live to well over 100; ironwood and palo verde trees provide luxurious habitat for numerous birds, including the endangered Cactus ferruginous pygmy owl and the elf owl, the smallest owl in the world.

White Sands, New Mexico

Desert vegetation grows painfully slowly, and for that reason deserts, once destroyed or severely disturbed, can take centuries to recover-if they are able to recover at all. Many desert animals are adapted to highly specific niches; because the ecosystems they depend on are so fragile, their populations can easily be wiped out. The deserts of the American Southwest now contain some of the fastest-growing cities in the country. As a result the animals and plants that have lived in these deserts for untold thousands of years are suddenly under intense pressure from urban sprawl development, cattle grazing, mining, dam-building, and off-road vehicle use.

Classic Sonoran Desert


The Center for Biological Diversity works extensively across the West to reduce these threats and to lessen their impact on animals and plants being pushed to the brink of extinction. We have taken action to preserve species and habitats in all four American deserts, but our work has focused chiefly on deserts in the Sonoran and Mohave bioregions, where pressures are currently most severe. While working to reform harmful land-management policy across the arid Southwest, we have focused on landscape-level strategies that hinge on the preservation of species in urgent peril-species at risk of extinction due to habitat destruction from rapid urban growth, cattle grazing, mining, and other economic activities.