Hundreds of endangered species find refuge in the country’s national parks. Here is a look at the parks with the greatest numbers of endangered species and some of the imperiled plants and animals they protect.
National parks are critical for protecting the animals and plants that live in them, and no park denizens need that protection more than endangered species.
What Are Endangered and Threatened Species?
According to the Endangered Species Act, an endangered species is an animal or plant in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A threatened species is a species likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
The Endangered Species Act has helped boost the populations of numerous imperiled species since it became law in 1973, and it has contributed to the recovery of iconic species such as the bald eagle, which was removed from the list in 2007.
Using data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NPCA worked with Defenders of Wildlife to identify the endangered species whose critical habitats overlap with national parks. Based on that inventory, the ranges of 381 imperiled species — including 286 endangered species, 89 threatened species and six species with other designations — include national parks. Some species, such as Big Bend National Park’s Guadalupe fescue, can be found nowhere else in the country.
From Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its diminutive spruce-fir moss spider to Kalaupapa National Historical Park and its 600-pound Hawaiian monk seals, here are the 10 national parks that, according to our methodology, are home to the most endangered species.
Haleakalā National Park, Hawaii
69 endangered species
Even More Threats
Despite its success, the Endangered Species Act has come under threat from legislation seeking to undermine it. In the current Congress alone, more than 75 bills and amendments have been introduced to weaken or dismantle various portions of the act.
Island isolation can produce a dizzying array of species, as Charles Darwin discovered when he visited the Galapagos in the mid-19th century. Unfortunately, this isolation is also what makes island species more vulnerable to introduced predators, pests and aggressive competitors. This scenario has played out repeatedly in Hawaii, where introduced species such as mongooses, feral cats and strawberry guava trees have wreaked havoc on the islands’ ecosystems. Haleakalā National Park, which extends from Maui’s southeastern coast all the way to the summit of the park’s namesake volcano, is home to a great diversity of plant communities, from rainforests to the water-saving species of the crater’s desert environment, and the vast majority of Haleakalā’s endangered species are flowering plants. For example, botanists have identified four species of geraniums found only on the high slopes of the volcano. The rarest of the four, the Hawaiian red-flowered geranium, is the only geranium species pollinated by birds, and the red flower’s curved shape fits the bill of nectar-sipping native honeycreepers perfectly. Only a few dozen individual plants remain.
Kalaupapa National Historical Park, Hawaii
59 endangered species
For more than a century, Hawaiians suffering from Hansen’s disease (also known as leprosy) were exiled on Molokai’s Kalaupapa Peninsula. A few of the surviving patients, who are now cured, decided to keep living in the park after it was created in 1980 and have been welcoming to one of the park’s rarest residents.
As in Haleakala, most of Kalaupapa’s endangered species are plants, but the rocky peninsula has been critical to the ongoing recovery of the Hawaiian monk seal, one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world. Two decades ago, a female monk seal gave birth on a Kalaupapa beach for the first time in recorded history. Unlike other parts of the archipelago, where the seals have been harassed or even killed, the female soon known as “Mama Eve” was left alone at Kalaupapa and ended up giving birth to 13 pups over the years. Some of her descendants have returned to the same shores, and a total of nearly 100 seals have been born there over the past 20 years.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California
22 endangered species
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area in and around San Francisco encompasses much more than the bridge of the same name. Even though it is an urban park, it features a biodiversity rarely matched in the National Park System. It is the second-most visited park site in the country behind the Blue Ridge Parkway and is home to endangered plants, fish, shrimp and butterflies. Protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1976, the Mission blue butterfly only survives in a few patches of the Bay Area. The small butterfly’s fate is intricately linked to that of three flowering plant species known as lupines that provide habitat for its larvae. Much of the coastal grassland that these lupines favor has been lost to development, and non-native plants further threaten the lupines’ habitat, but park staff and their partners have been working to restore native plants and remove invasive trees at several sites in the park.
Channel Islands National Park, California
Off the coast of Southern California, Channel Islands National Park is home to several species of threatened mammals, including the Guadalupe fur seal, the southern sea otter and the Santa Catalina Island fox, but all 14 of the park’s endangered species are flowering plants. One of those, the Santa Cruz Island manzanita, is found in the island chaparral, a community of woody shrub similar to chaparral found on the mainland, but the trees tend to be taller and don’t lose their leaves in dry conditions. Chaparral is crucial habitat for a number of birds, including Allen’s hummingbirds and island scrub jays, and island foxes are known to favor the manzanita’s berries.
Everglades National Park, Florida
Everglades National Park’s wetlands face many threats, from diversion of freshwater — a problem that NPCA has long worked to address — to sea level rise to a host of invasive species. As a result of these pressures, several of the park’s residents are endangered, including species of birds, insects, plants and fish. Everglades is also home to one of the world’s most endangered mammals: the Florida panther. The panther’s range used to cover a wide swath from South Carolina to Louisiana, but hunting and later habitat loss almost led to the animal’s extinction. Two decades ago, the panther’s population numbered only 20 to 30 individuals, but a recovery program that NPCA advocated for and helped fund released female Texas panthers in Florida. The effort helped boost the population to more than 100 animals, reduce inbreeding and improve the panthers’ overall health and resilience.
Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Kentucky and Tennessee
10 endangered species
There are about 300 species of freshwater mussels in North America, and about two-thirds of those are imperiled. The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Tennessee and Kentucky is one of the last refuges for several rare species of these mussels (seven out of Big South Fork’s 10 endangered species are freshwater mussels), and scientists are using them to monitor the quality of their habitats. Ranging in size from the nail of your little finger to a small dinner plate, mussels are filter feeders, and they don’t move, so their presence or absence is a good indicator of the health of their aquatic ecosystems. Big South Fork waters are generally of a good quality, but they are still threatened by acid mine drainage, farming chemicals and increased sediments from logging and road construction. Thankfully, in late 2016, after years of hard work by NPCA, elected leaders from both parties, local citizens and other partners, the Department of the Interior banned mountaintop coal mining from more than 500 miles of ridgeline in Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains, which will benefit the park, its waters and the rare mussels that live there.
Point Reyes National Seashore, California
9 endangered species
Located northwest of San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore includes a range of habitats — from open ocean to mud flats to Douglas fir forests — that promotes an extraordinary biodiversity: More than 1,500 species of plants and animals live there. That diversity is also reflected in Point Reyes’ endangered species, which include the showy Indian clover, Sonoma spineflower, Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly, California freshwater shrimp and tidewater goby, a small translucent fish that has been extirpated from many of its historical locations along the California coast. Each spring, male gobies bury themselves in the sand while females fight each other to court them. The tidewater goby favors coastal lagoons, estuaries and marshes. Thanks to a campaign by NPCA and others, a commercial oyster company that had been damaging the seashore’s natural resources for years did not receive a lease extension in 2012 for its operations in Point Reyes’ Drakes Estero Wilderness. After the removal of oyster racks and other debris, eelgrass meadows have expanded and provided suitable habitat for harbor seals, shorebirds and native fish.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
8 endangered species
From coniferous forests to desert riparian environments, the plant communities found in and around the Grand Canyon are as diverse as those one would encounter on a transect from Mexico to Canada. As a result, more than 2,000 species of plants and animals live in the park, and eight of those are rare enough to be listed as endangered. Perhaps rarest of all is the California condor, the largest bird on the continent. Bones and eggshells show that condors nested in what is now the national park during prehistoric times, but their range contracted dramatically after the extinction of the large mammals they fed on, such as mastodons and saber-toothed cats. Hunting, egg collecting, habitat loss and lead poisoning from fragments of ammunition left in carcasses further took their toll, and by 1985 there were only nine wild condors left. The remaining wild birds were captured and incorporated into an ambitious captive breeding program that included caretakers raising chicks using condor hand puppets. Many of these birds bred in captivity have been released, including in the Grand Canyon area. According to the last annual count, there were 276 condors in the wild, including 83 in Arizona and Utah. Last April, five condor pairs were spotted in Grand Canyon alone.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
8 endangered species
Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts the richest biodiversity in the entire National Park System — and the park has the numbers to prove it. More than 19,000 species have been documented there, and scientists believe as many as 100,000 additional species may live in the park. A vast forest cover, a range of elevations and abundant rainfall all contribute to this extraordinary biodiversity, but one reason Great Smoky Mountains’ number of species is so high is that people have been hard at work counting them. Since 1998, the park and its nonprofit partner, Discover Life in America, have collaborated on the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, an effort to identify and record every single species in the park. Eight of those species are listed as endangered, and they display great variety themselves, from mammals such as Indiana bats and Carolina northern flying squirrels to spruce-fir moss spiders and rock gnome lichens. The scientists involved in the inventory hope that greater knowledge of the park’s biodiversity will help decision makers protect this invaluable resource.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
8 endangered species
Most of the endangered species at Hawai’i Volcanoes are flowering plants, and one of the most spectacular is the Mauna Loa silversword. For most of its life, the plant looks like a ball of spiky, green-silvery leaves, but after 10 to 30 years, it produces a 9-foot-tall stalk of fragrant flowers — and dies shortly thereafter. The plant only grows above 5,000 feet on the flank of Mauna Loa, and the largest population exists within the park. Cattle, goats, mouflon sheep and pigs have long been the main threat to the silversword, causing the population to plummet by the 1990s. Since then, park crews have built miles of fencing to keep the hungry herbivores away, and several groups have collaborated to cross-pollinate the plants, collect their seeds, germinate them in greenhouses and plant more than 20,000 seedlings.
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About the author
Nicolas Brulliard Associate Editor
Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as associate editor of National Parks magazine.
- Point Reyes National Seashore
- Kalaupapa National Historical Park
- Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
- Haleakalā National Park
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Golden Gate National Recreation Area
- Everglades National Park
- Channel Islands National Park
- Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area