Historical ecology research is valuable for assessing long-term baselines, and is increasingly applicable to conservation and management. In this study, we describe how historical range data can inform key aspects of protected species management, including evaluating conservation status and recovery, and determining practical management units. We examine contemporary (1973–2012) and historical (1250–1950) data on nesting beach distributions for green sea turtles Chelonia mydas in the Hawaiian Islands. Green turtle populations in Hawai‘i declined until federal and international protections began in the 1970s, but over the past four decades one index population has shown encouraging increases and broader recovery has been inferred. We find that 80% of historically major nesting populations are extirpated, or have heavily reduced nesting abundances in comparison with current estimates. Furthermore, historical nesting areas were not geographically isolated, but distributed across the archipelago. In comparison, today more than 90% of green turtle nesting in Hawai‘i occurs at a single site that is vulnerable to sea level rise. This research suggests that assessing recovery without historical data on spatial patterns may overlook important ecological dynamics at the popu lation or ecosystem level, which can result in improper or inadequate conservation assessments and recovery targets.