5 ways you can help endangered species in national parks

National parks are home to some amazing plants and animals, but unfortunately many of these are “at-risk” species. This means that their population numbers have dropped so low that scientists are concerned – some have even been listed under the Endangered Species Act as “threatened” or “endangered”. Endangered species are at risk for extinction without your help.
A monk seal mother and her pup laying on a beach

NPS photo

Share the space

Endangered species use park lands and waters to find food, raise their young, and rest. Some endangered species are migratory and travel in and out of different parks and some are only found inside a single national park. Do you know Hawaiian monk seals, like the one pictured, are only found in the state of Hawaii? Kalaupapa National Historical Park partners with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to monitor monk seals that come to the park to have their pups. Monk seals need plenty of room - about 150 feet to rest - and mama monk seals can be very protective!

Parks manage habitat to protect species, especially endangered and threatened species. National seashores like Point Reyes National Seashore set aside beach habitat for endangered nesting shorebirds and limit the activities that can occur there to help protect the birds while they are raising their offspring. For example, they limit when dogs can be on the beach and require a leash during the times of year that dogs are allowed. Earlier this month, an off-leash dog entered the seasonal restricted area. The dog attacked and killed a threatened Guadalupe fur seal pup that had come ashore to rest. Cape Cod National Seashore is closed seasonally to beach driving to protect endangered plover nests and has recently seen habitat destruction from unauthorized use. Endangered species rely on parks for safe spaces - for them to eat, sleep, play, and be wild. It is up to us to share the space responsibly.

Park rules are there to keep visitors and resources safe. One selfie may not seem as though it is having an impact, but remember that national parks see more than 330 million visitors annually. Getting too close to wildlife can disturb their natural behaviors and cause unnecessary stress. Always watch from a distance for your safety and theirs!

Desert tortoise crossing the road

NPS photo

Don't Torment the Tortoise

Did you know there are 16 endangered species of turtle or tortoise found in National Park Service sites? One species, the desert tortoise, has likely existed for 15-20 million years! Desert tortoises have survived in extreme environments - the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts - but are in trouble due to interaction with humans. Impacts include:

  • Disease, which can be spread through humans touching the tortoises,
  • Habitat loss from development,
  • Stolen as pets,
  • Killed by vehicles when crossing roadways

Last year three desert tortoises were killed in a Joshua Tree National Park campground after being hit by cars. Scientists studying the tortoises have found that litter and inappropriate food disposal in the campgrounds attracts and boosts the raven population, who like to eat baby tortoises! On top of these threats, climate change is making their environment hotter and drier.

So what should you do? Keep your distance from tortoises and other wildlife. When driving, go slow and be aware. Joshua Tree National Park has a great video about why you shouldn’t move desert tortoises.

Graphic showing proper distance from wild animals
Stay about 75 feet, or two bus-lengths, from wildlife in national parks.

NPS graphic

The Key Deer isn't Your Lunch Date

Did you know that federal agencies work together to protect wildlife? The Key deer are endemic, meaning they are found only in the Florida keys, and are endangered. National Park staff from south Florida parks help the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge with habitat management projects and by sharing the message that feeding wildlife is dangerous. Key deer who have been fed often approach roadways and are more likely to be hit by cars. Please help us keep them healthy and wild by not feeding them.

It’s illegal to feed all wildlife in a national park or wildlife refuge, as doing so can be dangerous for you and the wild animal. You might want to see the animal up-close or think that feeding just one animal, one time doesn’t do any harm. Feeding wildlife can be deadly. For more information, check out seven ways to safely watch wildlife.

Aggression towards humans - in the form of a bite or a scratch - could put you at risk for bubonic plague, hantavirus, or rabies. A bite or attack from a food-conditioned black bear could be downright deadly. Wildlife fed by humans can become nuisance animals, breaking into tents, cars, and even homes - causing damage long after you have gone home.

So what should you do when you encounter wildlife or take your picnic to a national park?

  1. Keep your distance. If a wildlife animal approaches you, back up and give it space. Keep your food and belongs with you if you need to back away. Report any aggressive wildlife to the nearest park ranger.
  2. Keep your food secured. Some parks have bear boxes to secure food - if they don’t make sure you keep your food and other items secure. This might mean renting a bear-safe container or hanging a bear bag if you’ll be out overnight. Always check around your picnic area or campsite to make sure no litter has fallen or crumbs are left behind. Dispose of any trash properly, making sure the trash can lids are secure, or pack it out.
  3. Check the park’s website before you go. Many parks - like Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore and Rocky Mountain National Park post great advice for enjoying wildlife viewing safely in the park.
  4. Be a role model! Pick up trash or crumbs others have left behind. Maintain a safe distance and teach your children to do the same.
Endangered Shenandoah salamander on piece of wood

NPS photo

Don't Shoplift from Salamanders

National parks see more than 330 million visitors annually! If each person took home a “memento” - a rock, stick, pinecone, or flower - there would be none left to enjoy and none for the wildlife. Rocks, sticks, logs, and leaves are important habitat for many species. The Shenandoah salamander is only found in Shenandoah National Park. They actually breathe through their skin, but to do so they need moist conditions, like those found in forested areas. They eat small invertebrates they find under rocks, sticks, logs, and leaves. Removing these items reduces the available habitat for insects and salamanders. It may even make the forest floor drier and increase erosion. As the park climate warms, forest cover and leaf litter becomes even more important for the salamander.

What should you do? Plan ahead and make sure everyone in your group knows to leave what you find behind. Plan a camera scavenger hunt and take photographs of the interesting things you find. Bring along a guidebook to help determine what type of rock, leaf, flower, or feather you have found. Try your hand at sketching your findings in a field notebook. Practice Leave No Trace principles.

A small green shrub

NPS photo

Take the Path to Save the Plants

Your adventurous spirit may threaten to take you off trail, but staying on the trail and out of fenced off areas is the best way to ensure you do not destroy endangered plant species. Plants such as sentry milk-vetch in Grand Canyon National Park is not only endangered, but also endemic, meaning that the park is the only place in the world it is found. Much of this plant’s biology is still unknown and a mystery to science. Rangers close off areas to protect these sensitive plants and give them time to recover. Park biologists are actively cultivating sentry milk-vetch plants in a greenhouse for transplant back into areas that have been damaged by people walking off-trail.

Some parks in the Southwest experience super-bloom events when rains activate carpets of wildflowers. The sight can be breathtaking and many visitors travel to places like the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and Death Valley National Park to see the splendor. Please remember the perfect Instagram shot is NOT worth stepping on a few flowers, because when thousands of visitors trample or pick the flowers the seed bank is destroyed and it will take years for the flowers in that area to recover.

This Endangered Species Day, we challenge you to learn a new fact about an endangered plant or animal. A recent report by the United Nations warned that nature is declining at an unprecedented rate and 1-8 million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction. While that might seem like an impossible obstacle - many of these species are at risk because of humans, which means we can make changes to see them recover. Reducing plastic pollution, toxic runoff from urban lawns, unsustainable fishing practices, or energy consumption can go a long way. What does that mean at home or in a park?

  1. Look for ways to reduce or reuse items at home. Replace light bulbs with more energy efficient ones and turn lights off when leaving a room. Put on a sweater instead of turning up the heat. Buy less and learn to repair items when they become broken or worn out. Buy secondhand.
  2. Create more wildlife habitat at home by planting native plants and pollinator friendly plants. Avoid using pesticides. Time your lawn work so you don’t disturb nesting birds or mammals raising their young. Turn lights off in the evening to reduce light pollution. Plant a garden or support a local farmer so your food doesn’t need to travel as far (saving fuel).
  3. Be an example in a park - stay on the marked trails, follow the rules, and pick up trash (even if it isn’t yours). If you live near a park, see if you can volunteer to help with a restoration project. Report your sightings in iNaturalist or a citizen science app of your choice. Take only photographs of your found treasures.

Actions can make a difference. Many species that are thriving today thanks to recovery and protection efforts including the lesser long-nosed bat, the island fox, Deseret milk-vetch, and the Maguire daisy. If you haven’t heard of any of those, then that’s your first challenge!

Last updated: May 20, 2019