Blog Post Kati Schmidt May 15, 2020

9 Not-So-Cute Endangered Animals That Live in Our Parks

Celebrate Endangered Species Day with these curious critters

Over my lifetime of visiting national parks, I’ve seen grizzly bear cubs ambling up a hillside in Yellowstone, picked up my backpack just in time to prevent a Channel Island fox from sneaking a bite of my granola bar, and kayaked past a small island completely inhabited by bald eagles in Glacier Bay National Park.

I get it. Cute animals are cute.

But what about those animals that may not weigh so strongly on the “adorable” scale? While a green sea turtle may not evoke the same reaction as the Ozark hellbender, the uniting factor between these critters is the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The law supports threatened and endangered animals and plants across the country — including more than 600 species in our national parks.

This Endangered Species Day, we’re making room for … other sorts of critters. Those with faces only a mother — or an equal-opportunity animal lover like me — could find charming.

Ozark hellbender

Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri

North America’s oldest and largest salamander can grow a remarkable 2 feet long, though many find its name — and face — less remarkable. Just in case “hellbender” wasn’t bizarre enough, this solitary creature’s nicknames include mud dog, lasagna lizard, devil dog … and snot otter. While no one knows the true origins of its name, folklore says early settlers thought it was a creature from hell, where it’s bent on returning. The fewer than 600 Ozark hellbenders that still exist survive thanks to ESA protections and continued regulations to keep clear, clean waters in the rivers where they live.


Colorado humpback chub

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado; Canyonlands National Park, Utah; Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado and Utah; Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

This aptly named looker, with a namesake feature that acts as a rudder, swims through Colorado River canyon systems connected to some of the Southwest’s grandest landscapes, yet the curious fish remained unidentified until 1946. Human-caused threats, including disruptions in water flows from the Glen Canyon Dam and the introduction of non-native fish, led to a massive decline in the chub’s population, and the fish became protected under the ESA in 1967. NPCA has worked to influence management policies for the Glen Canyon Dam that support the humpback chub’s recovery, among other benefits.


Florida bonneted bat

Everglades and Big Cypress National Parks, Florida

No need to lean in to whisper secrets to this Floridian bat, which gives Dumbo a run for his money. Dining mostly in native forests, bonneted bats perform valuable pest control and can be found hanging upside-down or foraging for food in South Florida. The bats are threatened by pesticide use, habitat destruction and sea-level rise. Thanks to a recent lawsuit, our ears are open for news from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this summer; the agency will define critical habitat regulations for the animal by August, which will hopefully provide a positive step in its recovery.


Sonora (or Sonoyta) mud turtle

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

As Jeff Goldblum famously said in Jurassic Park, “Life … finds a way”. Such is this case for the Sonora mud turtle, an aquatic species with a home in one of the driest parts of the Sonoran Desert. Depending on water in the desert is a rough go. In the United States, it survives in a single reservoir in a remote national monument in southern Arizona. Unluckily for the turtle, that reservoir is about 150 feet from where the federal government is constructing new border wall fencing. The wall construction will damage water quality and, most devastatingly, block the turtles and other wildlife from reaching critical habitat that they have relied on for millennia.


Meltwater stonefly (also known as the mist forestfly)

Glacier National Park, Montana

The meltwater stonefly lives only in the coldest waters at the edges of Glacier’s retreating glaciers. Unfortunately, the fact that it lives nowhere else in the world, so far as we know, is a real problem for this itty-bitty bug, because these glaciers are set to melt entirely in the next couple decades. That will put the cold-loving insect right out of house and home, once and for all. Not good if you’re an alpine bird that eats stoneflies, and especially not good if you’re a meltwater stonefly.

Atlantic sturgeon

Colonial National Historical Park, Virginia

While several national parks preserve the remains of dinosaurs, a dwindling number of ancient species can still be found living in oceans and freshwater: sturgeon. These ancient swimmers have existed for more than 120 million years and can live over 60 years, grow over 6 feet long and weigh up to 160 pounds. Atlantic sturgeon sustained Indigenous people for countless generations, and the settlers of Jamestown relied on the fish when they arrived more than 400 years ago. The population was so abundant, it moved explorer Captain John Smith to proclaim there were more sturgeon “than could be devoured by dog or man.” The Captain was sadly not a master of long-term thinking, as the commercial fishery collapsed by 1901. Populations continued to shrink throughout the 1900s, until the sturgeon was finally placed under ESA protections in 2012. Since then, a small population has returned to the James River, spawning twice each year. However, the sturgeon’s home is once again under threat from a massive power line project in the river.

Note: Other remarkable endangered sturgeon make their homes in park waters around the country, such as the Kootenai river sturgeon at Glacier National Park, which are so big that people used to catch them using steel cables for fishing line drawn by horses.


Smalltooth sawfish

Biscayne and Everglades National Parks, Florida

Looking for a multitasker who can catch fish and help bushwhack through forests of seagrass? Look no further than the bizarrely beautiful smalltooth sawfish. Sadly, the sawfish’s signature body part has led to its decline, both from its “trunk” getting caught in fishing nets and from poachers illegally hunting its “saw” fins and other body parts. While sawfish used to swim in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, it now primarily survives in South Florida as well as waters near Australia. The sawtooth became the first marine fish to receive federal protections under the ESA in 2003.


California condor

Pinnacles National Park, California, and Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

With its bald head, 10-foot wingspan and face like an alien, the massive California condor may not win beauty pageants, but it’s a king of the skies and testimony to the power of the ESA. Habitat loss, power line collisions and lead ammunition — a toxic presence in the carcasses these scavengers feed on — nearly wiped out the species until only nine survived in the wild by 1985. Thanks to successful reintroduction efforts, more than 300 now live in the wild. I saw one for the first time last fall as I hiked the South Kaibab Trail at Grand Canyon. At first, I thought it was a giant raven, until I saw a shock of white flashing in its wings as it soared overhead. NPCA currently supports efforts led by the Yurok tribe to restore California condors to additional lands, including Redwood National Park.


American Crocodile

Biscayne and Everglades National Parks, Florida

Say ahhhhhhhh to the ultimate real-life swamp monster, the American crocodile. Of the 23 species of crocodile in the world, only two are native to the United States, and South Florida is the only place that serves as home to both. These shy and secretive animals have no natural predators aside from humans once they reach adulthood, but their eggs are extremely vulnerable to predation. Fortunately, sustained population increases led to the crocodile’s status in Florida changing from endangered to threatened. Under this designation, it still receives protections under the ESA, through a separate series of regulations. NPCA is fighting the Trump administration in court over its rewrite of ESA regulations that would negatively impact future decisions to list animals as threatened under the law. NPCA is also fighting the proposed expansion of the Turkey Point Power Plant, which has been releasing contaminants into the underlying aquifer for decades and threatens the region’s national parks, as well as the crocodile and other wildlife.


From fir-moss spiders to grey wolves, diverse animal life is essential to the health of our parks — and our world. NPCA continues to stand in unwavering defense of the Endangered Species Act and the wildlife and plants it protects.

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