Plans for tiny fish have southeast Missouri officials on edge

Sunday, October 28, 2012 | 7:12 p.m. CDT; updated 6:57 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 29, 2012

PERRYVILLE — A federal agency's plan to put a tiny fish found only in five southeast Missouri cave systems on the endangered species list has some Perry County officials worried about the move's potential impact on economic development.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will present plans at a meeting Tuesday in Perryville to have the Grotto sculpin added to the endangered list and designate its critical habitat for protection.

The proposed critical habit area — 36 square miles of underground aquatic habitat and 19 miles of surface stream in Perry County — includes most of Perryville and its rural surroundings, Perryville City Manager Brent Buerck told The Southeast Missourian.

That means the Perryville Industrial Park, home to TG Missouri and other industries, would also be inside the designated habit area.

"As best I understand it, anything that either receives federal money or requires federal approval would have a second layer of review," Buerck said. "Projects may be required to add additional safeguards beyond what is already required by law to protect this fish or its habitat."

If federal permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or other federal agencies are involved, that could add costs for businesses looking to locate in the area, or existing businesses that want to expand.

About 89 percent of the proposed habitat area is privately owned, while local government owns the rest.

The Fish and Wildlife Service first identified the Grotto sculpin as a potential endangered species in 2002 because of a decline in water quality. It said biologists have documented two mass die-offs in the Perry County cave systems in the past decade because of pollution from a single source entering groundwater.

Wildlife service spokeswoman Shauna Marquardt said her agency wants to work with local residents to figure out how to protect the fish in a way that everyone can agree upon.

"This process is not meant to change the way of life or how people operate their business or agricultural practices," she said.

Tuesday's meeting is one of the first in a series of steps required before the wildlife service can implement its plans. Marquardt said the agency will address every comment it receives, which could take some time.

The agency also will conduct an economic analysis that will consider the impact of the habitat designation on activities above ground, and eventually it will be posted for public comment, she said.

"What the final direction and product is, we don't know at this point because we don't know what the public comments will be," Marquardt said.

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