Meet 9 Endangered National Park Animals

The Kemps-ridley sea turtle, recently reintroduced to Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, is the most endangered sea turtle in the world. National Park Service photo.

The Kemps-ridley sea turtle, recently reintroduced to Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, is the most endangered sea turtle in the world. National Park Service photo.

The news is grim for many threatened plants and animals struggling to adapt to habitat loss, changing climate patterns, development, and other dangers. Fortunately, national parks provide habitat for many species with fewer and fewer places to go. National parks have also been the settings for success stories putting previously endangered animals on the road to recovery, such as the Channel Island fox and island night lizard at Channel Islands National Park and the gray wolf at Yellowstone National Park.

In honor of the ninth annual Endangered Species Day today, here are nine critically endangered animals that currently make their homes in national parks around the country.

1. The black-footed ferret. Once considered the rarest mammal in the world, about a thousand of these ferrets now live in the wild. National Park Service staff in partnership with the Fish and Wildlife Service and other conservation organizations have helped to reintroduce these two-foot-long members of the weasel family into South Dakota’s Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks.

A black-footed ferret in a Colorado conservation center.

A black-footed ferret in a Colorado conservation center. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

2. The Kemps-ridley sea turtle. This olive-gray reptile is the most endangered sea turtle in the world, though the good news is that its population has grown since hitting an all-time low in 1985. This increase is partly due to a successful multiagency effort to expand the turtle’s nesting grounds—including reintroducing the animals to Padre Island National Seashore on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Park staff and volunteers participate in annual nest detection and protection efforts to help the turtles survive.

3. The Ozark hellbender. This creature’s unusual appearance has inspired such colorful nicknames as “mud devil,” “water dog,” “snot otter,” and “old lasagna sides.” The curious, prehistoric amphibian is North America’s oldest and largest salamander, growing up to two feet long. Hellbenders rely on clear, clean water to survive, and only live in a small part of southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas, including the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Fewer than 600 Ozark hellbenders still exist in the wild.

4. The sawfish. A relative of the shark, this odd-looking fish with its distinctive rostrum, or toothy snout, is particularly susceptible to getting unintentionally caught in fishing nets—though habitat degradation and illegal hunting for its valuable “saw,” fins, and teeth have also led to the animal’s decline. The sawfish was once common in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, it now survives primarily in waters near Australia and parts of Florida, including Biscayne and Everglades National Parks.

5. The mist forest stonefly. The disappearing glaciers at Glacier National Park in Montana have long been a concern of scientists studying climate change. A relatively recent discovery, however, is the accompanying threat to the small mist forest stonefly which lives in streams fed by these melting glaciers. As the climate warms, the stonefly’s ability to survive in its natural habitat of this coldest of cold water is increasingly in danger. The animal was denied official endangered species protections in 2011. If listed, it would have been the first animal added to the federal Endangered Species List due to climate change.

The Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog.

The Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog. Photo © Davefoc.

6. The Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog.Once the most common amphibian in the lakes of the Sierra Nevada region of California, this brightly speckled frog has become prey to animals its ancestors never anticipated: non-native fish. Invasive trout feed on the animal’s eggs, tadpoles, and juveniles, resulting in a 95% decline in the frog’s population. Staff at Yosemite National Park are conducting ongoing experiments to introduce the frog into fishless lakes in an attempt to save them from extinction.

7. The desert pupfish. This shiny minnow-like resident of Death Valley, Capitol Reef, and other southwestern parks may look like just another small aquatic species, but it is the most extreme survivor of any animal on Earth. It can withstand freezing cold, boiling hot water, extremely salty water, droughts—even acidic water. The three-inch-long fish also has a historic connection to water rights in the United States: It was the star of a landmark 1976 Supreme Court ruling that curtailed groundwater pumping by a private development that could have destroyed the pupfish’s habitat. Despite its ability to survive extreme conditions, the desert pupfish has been on the Endangered Species List since 1986. 

An American pika at Rocky Mountain National Park.

An American pika at Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo © Jeff Goulden/iStockphoto.

8. The American pika. This tiny, tail-less relative of the rabbit lives among the high-altitude rock fields of parks such as Grand Teton in Wyoming and Rocky Mountain in Colorado and is severely threatened by climate change. The pika is so sensitive to heat, it can die when the temperature rises above 75°F, and whole communities have already disappeared. The National Park Service Climate Change Response Program designed a program specifically to address pika recovery—though, like the mist forest stonefly, the pika has been denied official federal endangered species protections. If listed, it also would have been the first animal listed as endangered due to climate change.

9. The Pacific fisher. These eight- to ten-pound cat-like animals once roamed the Northwest and California, building dens and raising kits in mature forests. Now, after decades of trapping and logging, the animals are all but gone from Washington State and are considered rare in the rest of its historic range, making it a candidate for federal endangered species protection. Olympic National Park in Washington has participated in successful reintroduction efforts, Yosemite National Park in California has conducted extensive fisher monitoring programs, and park staff are considering reintroduction efforts in Mount Rainier and North Cascades National Parks in Washington.

Park Service staff release a Pacific fisher into Olympic National Park.

Park Service staff release a Pacific fisher into Olympic National Park. National Park Service photo.

Learn more about Endangered Species Day on the Endangered Species Coalition website, including educational events throughout the weekend.

Learn more about national park wildlife on NPCA’s website and see our recent feature on 12 of the quirkiest national park animals.

About the Author

Editor of Online Communications Jennifer Errick

Jennifer Errick is editor of online communications at NPCA.