The Refuge is primarily high, semi-desert country typical of the Columbia Plateau region of the Great Basin, characterized by large tablelands and rolling hills. Surface water supplies are limited, generally to seeps and springs, though some impoundments exist. Annual precipitation averages less than 13 inches in the western portions of the Refuge and decreases to six inches in the eastern part of the range. These areas are interrupted by narrow valleys and canyons bordered by precipitous rocky rims. Elevations range from 4,500 to 7,600 feet.
Vegetation is dominated by communities of big sagebrush, low sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and bitterbrush. Meadow vegetation (grasses and forbs) and riparian vegetation (aspens and willows) are limited to areas around the few water sources found on the Refuge. Mountain mahogany and western juniper stands are found on higher elevations. Other important habitats include alkaline lakes, marshes, grassy spring-fed meadows, greasewood flats, juniper-covered uplands, and aspen stands in the more secluded canyon areas. Each of these areas supports its own particular suite of bird species. (Nevada Wildlife Federation 2004).
This landscape constitutes one of the best remaining examples of an intact desert shrub community in the Great Basin. Although altered through decades of grazing, the ecosystem has rebounded remarkably with the removal of cows. Management direction is towards habitat restoration and enhancement. Sagebrush obligates (Greater Sage Grouse, Vesper Sparrow, Sage Sparrow, Sage Thrasher, etc.) are the noteworthy species.
Wild horse herds are managed but can reach populations levels that cause resource damage. All sagebrush-steppe habitats are in danger of conversion to an annual invasive grass (cheatgrass) type, through a fire-invasion cycle. Junipers, though native, may become invasive where fire suppression allows the expansion of this cover type.
The majority of the site is comprised of the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Numerous small inholding are scattered throughout the area. Most of these inholdings were probably associated with ranching operations, some are still active. The USFWS remains interested in acquiring certain key parcels, and does so as willing sellers and financial capacity come together.
The Sheldon is primarily a high desert shrub-steppe landscape. Narrow stringers of aspen exist in drainages where water occurs seasonally or perennially, or where snow pack lingers. Juniper and mountain mahogany occur in scattered stands. The Sheldon has a small amount of riparian and wetland areas; these are concentrated in a few wet meadows, along a few perennial streams, and in reservoirs. The area's affinity lies with the Columbia Plateau ecoregion.
The mission of the Refuge is to manage the landscape for the benefit of wildlife. The Refuge was originally established for the benefit of antelope, but its modern mission encompasses the suite of native species utilizing the landscape. Because of its remoteness, the site receives only modest visitation.