In the Great Lakes region, piping plovers can be credited for saving 200 square miles of island beaches, lakeshores, river margins and wetlands from development. ©Shanthanu Bhardwaj, flickr

Saving natural and wild areas from development and for the use of people like you and me is usually thought to be thanks to endeavors such as national park unit designations, wilderness area nominations or the establishment of marine reserves. In reality, however, many of our public lands now exist because of those who sport feathers, fins or fur.

When animals receive endangered species status, the land that they inhabit is often protected along with them. According to the Endangered Species Act, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service lists a species, it generally must also designate “critical habitat,” the specific areas “with the physical and biological features that need special management considerations or protections essential for the species’ conservation.”

You can thank northern red-bellied cooters for 11 square miles of peace in Massachusetts. ©Bill Byrne/Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife

Because of this requirement, millions of acres of beaches, forests and wetlands have been shielded from degradation and unfettered commercial exploitation—just because of their wild residents.

Of mice and mountains

By creating the Endangered Species Act, which was signed into law in 1973, Americans set forth their belief that it’s not enough that wildlife survives in the confines of zoos but that these species must also thrive in natural environments. Since that time, 1,459 animals have been placed on the Endangered Species List. Those animals are not only the large, charismatic kind, such as bald eagles and grizzly bears, but also species that are more obscure yet equally unique and critical to the web of life.

In 2014, the listing of the Gunnison sage grouse helped limit oil and gas development on the rugged, pinon- and juniper-covered slopes surrounding Colorado’s Gunnison River. ©Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management

For example, when the northern red-bellied cooter, a freshwater turtle, was protected in 1980 with fewer than 200 breeding adults left, 11 square miles in Massachusetts were also conserved. That’s not much. But look at the case of the gray wolf: when it was listed for endangered species protection in 1974, 80,000 square miles of the Rocky Mountains were also put into preservation. In the Great Lakes region, piping plovers, designated as endangered in 1986, saved 200 square miles from development; and the protection of the frosted flatwoods salamander in 1999 in Georgia and South Carolina defended 500 square miles of habitat. In 2014, the listing of the Gunnison sage grouse, a chicken-size bird discovered in 2001, limited oil and gas development on 1.7 million acres surrounding Colorado’s Gunnison River.

As for our waterways, in 1998, the Preble’s Meadow jumping mouse was responsible for setting aside 411 river miles in Colorado, and the listing of bull trout safeguarded 20,551 miles of streams in the Rocky Mountains.

The Preble’s Meadow jumping mouse is only nine inches in length and has large hind feet adapted for jumping. A long, bicolored tail accounts for 60 percent of this mammal’s length. To evade predators, the mouse can jump up to three feet. In 1998, this diminutive animal was responsible for conserving 411 river miles in Colorado. ©U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Thanking those who skitter, soar or swim

Unfortunately, however, the Endangered Species Act itself is now in danger. Industries have labeled it as abusive and radical, and the current Congress has introduced multiple bills to weaken it.

With almost three-quarters of the land in the United States now privately owned, held by Indian reservations, or state or local governments, it would seem that we need the Endangered Species Act more than ever to protect wildlife—and the habitats that will ensure that our vanishing federal public lands are kept safe.

Though once abundant, bull trout have declined in many locations. Because the fish is now federally listed and protected under the Endangered Species Act, 20,551 miles of streams in the Rocky Mountains have been safeguarded. ©U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Historically, the conservation movement has focused on protecting a specific species or its habitat. But in rare circumstances, such as with endangered species listings, when we work for one, we get the other.

The next time you’re in your favorite national park or natural spot, you may want to thank those rare beings who fly over your head, skitter at your feet, swim alongside you or leave their tracks for you to follow in the forest. They just may be the ones that have done the most to defend your cherished refuges from the encroaching modern world.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,