National parks offer some of the last suitable habitats for a number of species and are home to creatures that exist nowhere else in the world. This means park staff play a key role in saving some of the rarest animals and plants from being lost forever.
The Endangered Species Act helps to protect more than 1,000 of the most vulnerable plants and animals struggling to survive around the country. Through broad-scale, long-term strategies led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hundreds of creatures continue to live, and in some cases, thrive through tailored recovery plans. It can take a remarkable amount of effort to mitigate some of the complicated human and environmental factors that threaten these plants and animals — but once a species is gone, it is gone forever.
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National parks offer some of the last suitable habitats for a number of species and are home to creatures that exist nowhere else in the world, which gives park staff a key role in saving many of these rare living things. I spoke with several endangered species experts at the National Park Service to identify just a few of the hundreds of species that survive in part thanks to the dedication of agency staff and their partners.
“The Park Service is mandated by a variety of laws and policies to address endangered species conservation and recovery,” said Mike Wrigley, biological resources chief and endangered species coordinator for the Park Service’s Intermountain Region. “It’s in our DNA. … We take it very seriously.”
1. Grizzly bear
Glacier, Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming
The Fish and Wildlife Service officially listed the grizzly bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, but the Park Service had been working to protect this species for decades before the act even existed. These large mammals (ranging from 150 to 500 pounds each) require large habitats, limiting where they can live. They make their homes in only five regions of the country, and three national park sites — Glacier, Grand Teton and Yellowstone — have been key to their survival. Although park staff at one time would allow bears to feed on garbage and come into relatively close contact with humans, management techniques have evolved significantly over the years. Now, bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in particular have grown from a low of 136 to about 700 today. “The recovery efforts that parks have undertaken in coordination with many other partners such as Forest Service, BLM [Bureau of Land Management], tribes and the states, certainly from a biological standpoint has been a strong success,” said Wrigley. “The numbers, reproduction, all the data suggest a very strong and robust population.” Grizzly bears were also once common at what is now North Cascades National Park in Washington state, although researchers estimate there could be fewer than 20 bears left in the region. The Park Service is now considering augmenting the population there, a move that NPCA strongly supports.
2. Green sea turtle
Canaveral National Seashore, Florida, and other national park sites
The green sea turtle is one of several threatened and endangered turtle species that nest on national park beaches. Although they frequent a number of parks along the Atlantic coast and cover a wide range of ocean habitat, according to Resource Management Specialist Kristen Kneifl, “Canaveral National Seashore boasts the most sea turtle nests of any national park along its 24 miles of undeveloped coastline.” Staff at Canaveral have helped the species recover by maintaining a nest screening program to keep predators from feeding on turtle nests. Other conservation measures such as turtle excluder devices, which allow turtles to escape from trawling nets, have also helped to protect the species. Nest counts vary a great deal from year to year, but even accounting for the normal ups and downs of turtle nesting habits, the staff at Canaveral have seen a significant increase in nests. Staff were counting fewer than 100 green sea turtle nests a year in the mid- to late 1980s, and the numbers have shown a steady upward trend since then, particularly in the last decade. 2015 marked a record year, with more than 3,500 nests. Scientists believe that these animals can live as long as 80 to 100 years, and mature females return to the beach where they were born every few years to lay their eggs, so preserving these “natal beaches” is essential to preserving the species.
3. Sentry milk-vetch
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The sentry milk-vetch is a tiny, delicate plant, but to wildlife biologist Bill Austin, it represents an enormous success for the Park Service. The species grows to just one inch tall and up to eight inches wide on limestone outcrops at the rim of the Grand Canyon — and it only exists within the boundaries of the park. (The plant was named “sentry” for its prime vantage point overlooking the canyon.) But because it lives close to the ground in places where throngs of visitors flock to see the view, for years, these perennial herbs were being trampled. In 2008, after researchers discovered how close the plant was to extinction, the Park Service took out the entire parking lot at Maricopa Point on the South Rim where the last known population existed at the time. Park staff then undertook an ambitious program to restore the soil, plant a variety of native plants and establish a robust population of milk-vetch at the site. Resource managers began growing the plant in nurseries and planting new populations in several places. As luck would have it, staff eventually discovered several additional populations on the South Rim. Now, at least 2,500 plants exist and staff continue to work toward a goal of 8,000 self-supporting plants. “To me, it’s a really good example of close coordination between the Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service to do these actions to get this species recovered,” said Austin. He added, “The other reason I love this species — it’s just a beautiful, beautiful little plant.”
4. Mission blue butterfly
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California
Although many people may not think of insects as rare, these tiny creatures often evolve to feed on specific plants, and if those plant populations suffer, it can have wide-ranging effects on the food chain. This was the case with the mission blue butterfly, which only lays its eggs on a few kinds of flowering plants known as lupines. “The caterpillars will not feed on another species, so you have to have these particular plants, and invasives wiped them out and outcompeted them in a lot of places,” said Mietek Kolipinski, national resources management specialist and water resources coordinator for the Park Service’s Pacific West Region. “Golden Gate is restoring habitat, making sure that the invasive plants are eliminated to allow the lupines to come back, which then allows the mission blue butterfly to be more successful in increasing its populations.” Park staff and their partners have engaged an enthusiastic team of trained volunteers to help remove the invasive species and monitor the native plants, while keeping watch over the dusty blue butterflies and their delicate eggs.
5. Saint Croix ground lizard
Buck Island Reef National Monument, Virgin Islands
This three-to-four-inch reptile was a common sight on Saint Croix before 1912, when the invasive Indian mongoose was introduced to the island. Predation by the mongoose, as well as feral dogs and cats, contributed to a complete extirpation of the ground lizard population on the main island, meaning no known animals remained there. Fortunately, a small population of the species survived at a wildlife refuge on a nearby island known as Green Cay, and the Park Service established a long-term plan to introduce some of these animals to Buck Island Reef, another small island near the main island of Saint Croix. After eliminating the mongoose and assessing the habitat at Buck Island, staff brought just 57 of the ground lizards to the national monument in 2008, and in less than a decade, the population has grown significantly — large enough that park staff may be able to use animals from Buck Island to reestablish a population on the main island. “In 2008, when those individuals were brought over to Buck Island, we just weren’t sure how it was going to go,” said Tim Pinion, wildlife biologist and endangered species coordinator for the Park Service’s Southeast Region. “It’s been so successful that they’re thriving on Buck Island, and we have enough individuals that we can contemplate moving them around.”
6. Indiana bat and gray bat
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky, and other national park sites
Many bats around the country have been significantly affected by white-nose syndrome, a disease that has continued to spread at an alarming rate since it was first discovered in the winter of 2006 in New York state. National parks are particularly important as protected refuges for the bats that remain. Sites such as Mammoth Cave are also critical places where researchers can monitor and study how the disease affects these animals. Park staff have been able to use the epidemic as an opportunity to educate visitors on the importance of decontaminating their shoes and taking other precautions to avoid spreading the disease to protect endangered species such as the Indiana bat and gray bat. “The big story, unfortunately, is that the population of some species that are susceptible to white-nose syndrome have really crashed in the past decade,” said Pinion. “But we have parks like Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky and Great Smoky Mountains National Park that have important winter hibernacula for bats as well as summer roosting sites.” He added, “Just by virtue of the fact that those caves are protected, it’s a chance for these species to hold on in the face of this pretty dire disease.”
7. California condor
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, Pinnacles National Park, California, and other national park sites
California condors once ranged throughout the skies of western North America, but by 1982, only 22 remained. A variety of human activities led to the population decline, including the use of lead ammunition, which poisons the animals the condors feed on. Now the birds are making a comeback thanks to a captive breeding program by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and successful reintroduction efforts at Pinnacles National Park and regions around the Grand Canyon. These efforts have boosted the bird’s numbers to nearly 500. “The Park Service has worked closely with a number of federal and state agencies and NGOs on its recovery,” said Wrigley. He added that the recovery has been so successful that the Park Service was “currently contemplating whether to reintroduce California condors in Redwood [National Park], so that’s an ongoing planning effort.”
8. Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub and razorback sucker
Canyonlands National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Lake Mead National Recreation Area and other national parks along the Colorado River
Of the fish that are native to the Colorado River Basin, three endangered species are found nowhere else in the world. National parks provide critical habitat areas for these fish, although protecting them is a challenge, or as Wrigley puts it, “It’s been a long-standing project, and it’s been a tough one.” That’s because two factors that harm the fish are especially difficult to manage. The fish are affected by how water flow in the river is managed via the Glen Canyon Dam, which uses the same water to produce approximately 5 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectricity annually for a broad region of the Southwest. Invasive species such as zebra mussels and quagga mussels also prey on the fish and compete with them for food. The Park Service continues to work with the Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies to manage water from the dam to help these fish survive. Staff also work with state agencies and other partners to help inspect boats and prevent invasive species from spreading into this popular water system.
9. Franciscan manzanita
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California
Described as “San Francisco’s unicorn,” the Franciscan manzanita was once as rare as a species could be. Scientists thought the low-growing shrub had gone completely extinct in the 1940s; then, in 2009, a botanist spotted a single plant on a traffic island near the Golden Gate Bridge that a construction crew had uncovered during a road-widening project. The shrub and its 21,000-pound root system were removed from the imminent danger posed by the highway construction and carefully transplanted to a safer location within the Presidio, which is part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco. Now, botanists grow new plants from cuttings at the Presidio Nursery with the hopes of reestablishing the plant in new habitats within the city. In addition to growing the new plants, park staff put significant work into preparing soils and other conditions for these sensitive species. “You really can’t do much about protecting a species unless you protect its habitat,” Kolipinski said. Curiously, the Franciscan manzanita joins the raven’s manzanita as one of two endangered manzanitas preserved at the Presidio, where staff keep the city’s botanical history alive.
10. Black-footed ferret
Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks, South Dakota
These two-foot-long members of the weasel family were once considered the rarest mammals in the world. The ferrets depend on prairie dogs as their primary food source, and the human extermination of prairie dog populations in some parts of the country nearly wiped out the ferret, which was officially recognized by the government as threatened in 1967 and listed as endangered after the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973. By 1987, only 18 were known to be left in existence. These 18 animals were put into a captive breeding program, and the Park Service began reintroducing ferrets to Badlands National Park in 1994 and Wind Cave National Park in 2007, among other sites in the U.S. and Mexico. Today, one of the biggest factors affecting prairie dogs, and by extension ferrets, is sylvatic plague. This same disease once known as the “black death,” spread by infected fleas, can wipe out entire prairie dog colonies, threatening the ferret’s survival in turn. “Management of plague is becoming one of the key issues in black-footed ferret recovery,” said Austin. “It’s not just trying to identify sites where you can put ferrets and maintain prairie dogs in a number of different ways, but really trying to focus on that particular disease.” The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently researching new ways to control the plague, and thanks to decades of work involving multiple government agencies and partners such as the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, about 1,000 black-footed ferrets now live in the wild.
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To date, the Endangered Species Act has helped to prevent more than 99 percent of the species on its list from going extinct, saving many creatures that Americans know and love, such as the bald eagle, the brown pelican and the Florida manatee. Through broad and ambitious partnerships, Park Service staff continue to help keep some the most vulnerable plants and animals from being lost forever.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story featured the loggerhead turtle’s comeback at Canaveral National Seashore. Although loggerhead numbers have increased since the mid-1980s, the green sea turtle’s recovery has been even more dramatic. The original story incorrectly stated that park staff had counted just under 7,500 loggerhead turtle nests in 2015; this number represents all turtle nests, including loggerhead, green and leatherback turtles.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.