After a lengthy presentation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Missouri Department of Conservation, residents loudly voiced displeasure with the proposal saying it would cost landowners, farmers and local industries. Concerns were voiced that having an endangered species on private property would lead to lower property values.
While the 2.5-inch Grotto sculpin, believed to live only in underground Perry County caves, has been on the Wildlife Service's radar for years, but its process to elevate it to the endangered list has been expedited because of a federal lawsuit, said Shauna Marquardt, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Columbia, Mo.
Under a settlement agreement with WildEarth Guardians, the Fish and Wildlife Service has to move forward with the process of evaluating 400 species for the endangered list, including the Grotto sculpin.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has 11 months to determine if the species should be listed and whether steps should be taken to set aside its critical habitat, which lies beneath most of Perryville and its industrial park.
It is estimated there are about 4,200 Grotto sculpin in Perry County, Marquardt said, but some at the meeting questioned whether the count is accurate because caves are so difficult to access. Others questioned whether the Grotto sculpin really is a distinct species.
"What is the impact on the human race, environment, civilization if it goes extinct?" asked Patrick Naeger, a Perry County resident and business owner with property at the entrance of the Moore cave system.
Marquardt said if the Grotto sculpin should became extinct, it would indicate a larger problem. And it likely would mean other species could become extinct.
Perry County Commissioner Pat Heaps asked why the Fish and Wildlife Service could not just cooperate with local governments to create a plan to try to protect the fish without imposing the restrictions that would come with the "endangered" designation.
"We don't want something that will affect our industry and farmers. I've seen a lot of improvements in Perry County. I think we can do this," Heaps said. He noted many sinkholes, from which water filters into caves, have been cleaned up since he was a boy.
Studies have shown more than 30 chemicals in cave streams, many at levels higher than considered acceptable by the EPA, said Paul McKenzie, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
These included pesticides, some of which have been outlawed for years, and fertilizers.
Marquardt said the community has the option to come up with a plan to improve its water quality, which is threatening the fish. But it will have to be done quickly because the department has only until Sept. 28, 2013, to follow the court directive.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has been working with the Missouri Department of Conservation and landowners about the status of the Grotto sculpin, but the lawsuit has eliminated their slow, steady progress, said Amy Salveter, field supervisor for the Columbia, Mo.-based agency. "Our hands are tied. We did not choose to do this. We live in the state of Missouri. My father is a farmer ad has an endangered species on his farm. I know you make conservation success by winning trust and working together, but we are following an order from a federal court judge," she said.
There have been two documented fish kill incidents of the Grotto sculpin in Perry County, McKenzie said.
In one instance, the cause never was determined. Cattle in streams -- and sedimentation -- caused the other, but it has been difficult to track specific sources in order to prosecute them, Marquardt said.
In one of the instances, she said, it took six years for the fish to repopulate.
Perry County's Grotto sculpin is similar to the Ozark cave fish, which is on the endangered species list without having negatively affected developments in the Springfield, Mo., downtown area or its airport, Marquardt said.
There are cost-sharing programs available to help private landowners who want to take voluntary steps to help improve underground water quality, said Jason Crites of the Missouri Department of Conservation. A sinkhole cleanup program already has been used seven times in Perry County with three in progress, he said. Other programs help fund vegetative buffers and protection of springs.
The Fish and Wildlife Service does not have jurisdiction over private land, so landowners cannot be forced to take part in these programs, Marquardt said.
Projects that require environmental permits may be affected, but others may not if the species is added to the endangered list, she said.
"It's not a showstopper."
Attendees were asked to submit their concerns electronically or by mail. A public-comment period remains open through Nov. 26.
More information can be found at www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered.