Despite being situated in the Mojave Desert, considered the driest land mass in North America, Clark County Wetlands Park is rich in natural, historic, and archaeological features.
The Las Vegas Wash bisects Wetlands Park on its 12-mile flow downstream to Lake Mead. The Wash is the natural water system that first brought Native American and early settlers to what became the Las Vegas Valley. Its source or headwaters, lies at what is now the northwest boundary of the Park, one of the lowest parts of the Valley. Once fed only by intermittent water flows, the Wash became a perennial stream as result of the discharge of treated flow from the Valley's wastewater reclamation facilities, beginning in the 1950's.
[Photo by big bridge]
As Las Vegas' population grew, dramatic physical changes occurred to the Wash and adjoining lands. Eventually over decades, the Wash became an "urban river." Today the Wash receives more than 180 million gallons of reclaimed water per day from five water treatment plants located in the Valley, along with any intermittent flows it obtains from shallow groundwater, urban runoff and stormwater. With most of the 22 weirs already constructed along the 8-mile stretch between the Park and Lake Las Vegas – 21 of which are located within Park boundaries – over 2,900 acres of Park habitat have been restored.
Water is what allows the flora and fauna to thrive in the Park. From spiny soft shell turtles to American coots, beaver, coyotes and otherworldly-looking dragonflies, it is the water that makes this micro-climate so different from the surrounding desert.
There are four unique environmental habitats in the Park:
The water-rich aquatic wetlands found within the Wash and the Park Preserve's network of ponds and streams provide resources for many plant and animal species that might not otherwise survive in the dry desert valley. In addition to being home for a wide array of resident wildlife species, the aquatic habitat is an important rest stop for migratory birds and seasonal visitors. This habitat is home to a range of grasses: common reed, common cattail, and bulrush among them. These plants help stabilize the waterbeds throughout the park, also filtering the water as it passes.
Adjacent to the aquatic habitats found in the Park, these verdant "strips of green" provide important food and shelter for wildlife close to water. These areas contain the widest range of biodiversity for the Mojave Desert. Along the shores of waterways in the Park, water-loving plants such as the desert, sandbar, seep and Goodding's willow thrive. Some of the Goodding's willows in the Park were planted by the area's early pioneers in the 1950's.
Mesquite Woodland/Alkali Meadow
Further away from the perennial water sources found in the Park, these meadows provide natural drainage for the Park when hit by flashfloods. While generally dry, they sustain a bounty of plants and wildlife that rely on them. Further away from the water sources, visitors will find honey and screwbean mesquite stands, interspersed with quailbush, catclaw acacia, and four-winged saltbush. Also the Preserve is home to some of the last stands of desert saltgrass and alkali sacaton in the Valley.
This is the general habitat of the Mojave Desert, receiving just over four inches of precipitation per year. The plants and animals living here need to be very resilient. Typically the habitat contains a wide distribution of low-growing shrubs. Even in parts of the Park's driest areas, largely supported by natural precipitation, vegetation abounds on its own scale. The low-growing creosote bush has small, waxy leaves that give off a distinct odor that locals say "smell like rain" in advance of a storm.
Clark County Wetlands Park is home to over 70 species of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, and over 310 species of birds.
The most common wildlife in the Park, birds range in size from the golden eagle with its six-foot wingspan to the tiny black-chinned hummingbird.
Look for the northern mockingbird, mourning dove, Say's phoebe and little gray, yellow-headed verdin that routinely fly through the Park's main parking lot. Also keep an eye out for Gambel's quail and greater roadrunner as they pass on foot.
At the ponds in the Preserve, the first duck-like bird you'll likely see is the American coot, a black paddler with a white bill and faceplate. The coot has a less-often-seen "cousin" – the common gallinule – which has a red bill and faceplate.
The Park's aquatic wetlands are prime habitat for wading birds, including its largest, the great blue heron and great egret. These birds typically stand three-feet tall and have a wingspan of over six feet. The heron is often difficult to spot because it blends so well with its surroundings.
Birds of prey regularly fly over the Park. They include the northern harrier, a low-flying hawk with a white patch visible at the base of its tail. Red-tailed hawks usually soar higher. The smallest bird of prey, the loggerhead shrike, a small light gray bird that appears to wear a black, bandit-style mask around its eyes, can often be seen in the top branches of mesquite trees and cottonwoods. It watches its prey, often a large insect, sometimes a small bird or a rodent, then pounces.
A common resident of the alkali meadow and desert scrub habitats in the Park is the phainopepla, a small black or gray bird with white patches on its wings and a raised tuft or crest on its head. The birds have a unique relationship with the desert mistletoe, a parasitic plant that lives off of the mesquite trees found throughout the Park. Phainopeplas feed heavily on berries of this parasitic plant; after the berries pass through the bird's digestive tract, the seeds often stick to branches of mesquite or other trees, where they can sprout new mistletoe clumps.
The Park makes life easier for many desert species. Animals like coyote are found in greater numbers , drawn by water and prey. Hares and cottontail rabbits often scoot across the trails at the sounds of visitor footfalls. Some animals, such as raccoons, bats, badgers, beavers, foxes, and bobcats, are rarely seen during daylight hours, but evidence in the form of tracks and scat can often be found alongside the walkways.
The Park is home to a number of fish species, none of which are native to southern Nevada. Some, like the mosquitofish, were introduced because they eat mosquito larvae and help control mosquito populations. Others like the green sunfish and common carp were introduced into the Colorado River for spot fishing and swan up the Wash from Lake Mead. All of these fish are tough enough to survive in the warm, alkali water of the Park. They provide food for the wading birds, such as herons, egrets, and ibis.
Amphibians and Reptiles
A wide range of amphibians and reptiles are at home in the Park. Some live in ponds and streams, like the large spiny softshelled turtles that like to sun themselves on rocks in the Preserve streams and ponds and the Wash, especially during the warmer weather. Also in the warmer weather visitors may see the wester whiptail lizard with its characteristic pointed nose and the non-venomous red racer snake as they skirt through the meadows and scrub.
At the Park, the world's smallest creatures are well established in the habitats, helping to provide a balance to biodiversity and a welcomed food source for birds, animals, and other insects.
Threatened and Endangered Species
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 is one of the few dozens of US environmental laws that serve as legislation to protect critically imperiled species from extinction, whatever the cost. At the Park, we are protecting four wildlife species.
While much of the vegetation found in the Park is native, there are unwanted plants that have found themselves here as well. These plants have a tendency to spread, use precious resources like water, and outcompete native species, damaging to the Park environment. The most common invasive plants in the Park are tamarisk or salt cedar, tall white top, and giant reed.
Many of the aquatic animal life in the Park is exotic as well, meaning it is not originally from here. Often these species were introduced by people, and sometimes include unwanted pets. These exotic species can introduce diseases and can outcompete native species. It is illegal to release any animals in the park and is often damaging to the ecosystem.