ST. LOUIS — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will add a small, cave-dwelling fish known only to a single southeast Missouri county to the list of endangered species.
The agency's decision on Tuesday was also good news for Perry County: The grotto sculpin's habitat was not designated a "critical habitat." County officials had feared the designation could jeopardize economic development.
Instead, the service will rely on a voluntary conservation plan developed by federal, state and Perry County officials. It includes specific plans for improving water quality in the fish's habitat.
"I think we can build a plan that allows us to protect our water quality and the environment, and still be economically efficient," Frank Wideman, chairman of the Perry County Economic and Environment Committee, said in a statement.
The grotto sculpin lives in an area of Perry County that has hundreds of caves and thousands of sinkholes. It isn't much of a looker — the Fish and Wildlife Service describes it as a fish with a pale skin color, with reduced and sometime absent eyes, common among animals that live in total darkness.
It is threatened by water contaminated by agricultural runoff, industrial water and other pollutants.
The small fish will be listed as endangered effective Oct. 25. The Fish and Wildlife Service said "endangered" means a plant or animal is in danger of becoming extinct. Listed species cannot be harmed, killed or harassed.
The Fish and Wildlife Service cited cooperation with residents and government in Perry County and with two state agencies, the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, in the decision not to designate a critical habitat.
"The partners have developed a plan that will not only conserve the habitat of the grotto sculpin, but will conserve and safeguard the water that supports the entire community," said Amy Salveter, the project leader for ecological services at the Fish and Wildlife Service's Columbia office.
The agency first identified the grotto sculpin as a candidate for protection in 2002, citing a decline in water quality in the cave systems inhabited by the fish. Biologists documented two mass die-offs in the cave systems over the past decade due to water pollution.
Last September, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed both the endangered species and critical habitat designation. County officials and civic leaders fought hard against the critical habitat designation over concern that it would mean more regulations and potentially make it harder to recruit businesses to Perry County, about 80 miles south of St. Louis.