Feds estimate cost of saving cave-dwelling fish in Missouri

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 (http://bit.ly/12yoDDe ). 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.