Endangered Species Act supports national parks in conservation mission

The sight of grizzly bears foraging at Yellowstone National Park or humpback whales breaching at Glacier Bay are conservation marvels that attract millions of visitors each year. It is hard to imagine these majestic landscapes without these iconic species.

The fact that Americans still enjoy the presence of grizzlies and humpback whales in our parks is a credit to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as well as to the enduring role and importance of the National Park System. The ESA supports recovery efforts for grizzlies and whales and many other imperiled species, benefiting national parks and surrounding communities in a myriad of ways. 

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In fact, our nation’s premier wildlife protection statute and the law that created the National Park Service go hand-in-hand. The Organic Act of 1916 specifies that the National Park System’s mission “is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein.” 

In a report recently released by National Parks Conservation Association and Defenders of Wildlife, we present a series of case studies showing how the ESA supports national parks in their conservation mission. National parks are home to all-American landscapes and iconic wildlife, including habitat for more than 600 threatened and endangered species protected by the ESA. 

These species are critical to the integrity, function and resiliency of park ecosystems. Our research included the development of a unique and comprehensive database and map, detailing the hundreds of ESA-protected species that have habitat in more than half of our 419 national park sites.

One of the species that benefit from ESA protections is found just west of Washington, D.C. in Shenandoah National Park. The endangered Shenandoah salamander is found on 6,000 acres of unique habitat within its namesake national park and nowhere else in the world. Listing under the ESA directed more resources and more scientific research on this endangered species, providing greater understanding, management upgrades and habitat restoration for the salamander’s long-term survival. Shenandoah National Park and the wildlife and gateway communities connected to the park benefit from this and other important conservation work.

Each year, nearly a million and a half visitors find refuge and respite in the park’s forests, meadows and waterfalls. In 2017, about $95.8 million in economic revenue were generated by the park, with cumulative benefits to the U.S. economy totaling $35.8 billion.

Another imperiled species on the other side of the continent also shows how the ESA can prompt scientific research and expanded legal protections for species on the brink and the ecosystems they inhabit, enhancing the national parks’ conservation mission. When the Mojave desert tortoise was listed under the ESA, their plight drew national attention and congressional interest in protecting and connecting their habitat. The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 expanded and updated Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Monuments into national parks and created Mojave National Preserve. More recently, three new national monuments, Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains now protect an additional 1.8 million acres of key habitat. And the president recently signed into law a bill that increased protected landscapes within and outside of the desert national parks, including tortoise habitat.

Unfortunately, the ESA and the iconic fish, wildlife and plant species it protects are under mounting political attack. President TrumpDonald John TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' MORE’s recently released budget calls for continued cuts to the already cash strapped U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Park Service’s budgets, leaving federal agencies with less than half of what they need to recover fish, plant and wildlife populations. In addition, Trump’s nominee to become secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, is soon expected to finalize ESA regulations that would undermine the conservation of endangered and threaten species, weaken critical habitat designations and make recovery of endangered animals and plants costlier and more difficult. These administrative threats are on top of more than one hundred bills and riders introduced in the last Congress that would reduce protections for threatened and endangered species across the country.

The tremendous success of the ESA and our national parks has benefited communities, imperiled fish and wildlife and plants and our nation’s wild places. The relationship between the ESA and national parks has the power to benefit our nation for generations to come – but only if Americans continue to defend the ESA and encourage policymakers to give federal and state fish and wildlife professionals the financial support they need to protect America’s most threatened and endangered species. 

Theresa Pierno is the president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Jamie Rappaport Clark is the president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife.