May 26th, 2013
The Associated Press
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's estimate of the cost of saving a small cave-dwelling fish in southeast Missouri ranges from $140,000 to $4 million over the next 18 years.
The service said the cost for protecting the grotto sculpin in Perry County depends largely on the value of existing efforts, as well as whether the species is classified as endangered and if the area where it lives is designated a critical habitat.
The actual costs of the protection likely will fall somewhere between the two numbers, said Laura Ragan, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Endangered Species.
“The economic analysis considers economic impacts expected solely as a result of critical habitat designation, rather than as a result of `baseline protections,“ Ragan said.
Baseline protections arise from listing the species as “threatened” or “endangered” and are less rigorous than guidelines for when an area is designated “critical habitat,” or essential to the survival of the species, she said. The rare fish is believed to exist only in underground cave streams near Perryville.
The service will take comments through June 6 on a proposal to list the fish as endangered, The Southeast Missourian reported.... A decision on whether the fish will be placed on the endangered list is expected in September.
Perry County economic development director Scott Sattler said the estimated costs vary so widely because the plan is designed to capture every possibility, including existing efforts. He said the estimate “doesn't really tell us anything because it is such a wide scope.”
Perry County and Perryville residents submitted their own conservation plan to protect the fish last month, in an effort to prevent burdensome requirements from the federal government.
The city of Perryville already manages 400 sinkholes to prevent contamination and sediment from hurting the underground ecosystem. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists documented two mass die-offs in the cave systems in the last decade because of pollution from a single source entering groundwater.
“Perry County and the community have always been environmental stewards,” Sattler said. “I feel we're sitting in a good position.”
Perryville Mayor Debbie Gahan said a reputation of having environmental issues could hurt the region's economy.
“We're going forward, but we'll never be able to tabulate what we might have had,” Gahan said.
Conservation Commission of Missouri
Cottidae (sculpins) in the order Scorpaeniformes (mail-cheeked fishes)
Sculpins, as a group, have flattened bodies, large mouths and enlarged pectoral fins. They have large heads that taper abruptly into the rather slender body. They lack scales. The grotto sculpins of Perry County look much like the regular banded sculpin, but they have smaller eyes, paler bodies, and other features fitting them for cave life. The overall color is light tan to bleached tan, with underparts unpigmented.
Adult length: 2½–4 inches.
Habitat and conservation:
Grotto sculpins live in and around 5 caves and one stream in Perry County. Like their more pigmented relatives, they are bottom-dwellers. Land use around sinkholes has a profound impact on ground water quality and sculpin health. Sinkholes supply water to cave streams and groundwater sources. This makes sinkhole pollution control imperative. Establishing a buffer of trees and other plants around sinkholes reduces soil erosion and filters out herbicide and pesticide runoff.
Sculpins as a group have very large mouths and are able to swallow prey items (including other sculpins) nearly as large as themselves. In cave systems, food includes cave isopods and amphipods, cave crayfish and many other bug-like creatures, as well as small fish.
Distribution in Missouri:
Occurs only in certain caves in tributaries of the Bois Brule River drainage in Perry County, in southeast Missouri.
In 2013, genetic testing determined that the grotto sculpin was different enough from the banded sculpin to deserve its own scientific name. It is a rare fish with a very limited distribution, meaning it is very vulnerable to extinction. A single local catastrophe could wipe out them all. Therefore it is a candidate under the Federal Endangered Species Act. The new species name, "specus," refers to its cave habitat.
Little is known about sculpin reproduction in general, and less is known about the life cycle of these cave-adapted populations. Mating and nesting probably occurs in spring, with males excavating the nests, then carefully guarding the eggs until they hatch. One recent study suggests that young grotto sculpins often spend their first season at “resurgence sites” outside of the caves, in order to grow more quickly before reentering the caves, where larger sculpins might otherwise eat them.
The grotto sculpin is valuable as an environmental indicator. Its presence indicates that the caves it inhabits have clean water. As long as grotto sculpins thrive, southeast Missourians can rest assured that groundwater supplies in the area are healthy.
Caves have their own suite of predators and prey species, and grotto sculpins are predators in these pitch-dark streams, swallowing insects, smaller fish and crustacean-like creatures.