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Tiny Treasure Found In Southwest Missouri

February 5, 2007

Size is less important than diversity at Ozark Cavefish National Wildlife Refuge.

Springfield, Missouri - Late-August heat beat down from above and radiated from the very earth as Vergial Harp set out across a pasture in southwest Missouri. Ponds along the gravel road where he left his government truck were shrunken and algae filled. A thick layer of dust gave vegetation an ashen pallor.

A quarter-mile trek brought him to the verge of a creek burbling with clear water, despite a drought of three years and counting. The air was still, and only cicada songs broke the stillness.

Parting the streamside vegetation and scrambling down the bank, he entered a different world. The air was easily 10 degrees cooler and damp enough to fog eyeglasses. The water felt refreshing on his fingers when he stooped to test its coolness.

Turning upstream, he picked his way along the bedrock, skirting spots deeper than his boot tops. The water grew cooler as he went along. One bank backed up to a steep hillside, almost a bluff. He stopped where a small declivity punctuated the rock. The plants growing in the water changed here, growing more succulent, and Harp could feel an extra chill, even through his waterproof boots.

"This is Hearrell Spring," he said, indicating a shallow expanse where rising water tickled the sand-and-gravel bottom. "That is the outlet for an underground stream that runs through a cave."

Harp is a Refuge Ranger with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) based in Puxico, Mo. On this August day, he was visiting one of the areas for which he is responsible, Ozark Cavefish National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).

At just over 40 acres, it has the distinction of being the second-smallest national wildlife refuge. The heart of the refuge lies beneath the surface of the land, and much about the area remains mysterious, even to Harp. Concern for its unique and largely uncatalogued biological contents currently keep the area closed to public use, but Harp hopes that eventually will change.

Ozark Cavefish NWR came into existence in 1991, with the acquisition of 40 acres in Lawrence County. The land adjoins two areas owned by the Missouri Department of Conservation. One of the conservation areas has an extensive cave system known to harbor the federally threatened Ozark cavefish. Preserving the eyeless, 2-inch fish is the refuge's reason for being. A separate, 1.3-acre tract adjacent to the Neosho National Fish Hatchery, also known to harbor Ozark cavefish, comprises the remainder of the NWR.

Ozark cavefish are known to live only in a few caves in southwestern Missouri, northwestern Arkansas and northeastern Oklahoma. Early settlers in the region called the tiny, pinkish-white fish "well keepers," because their presence was proof of clean water. Their sensitivity to pollution makes them good environmental barometers even today. Pesticides, chemical spills, soil erosion, and runoff from roads, parking lots, garbage dumps, septic systems and livestock operations may account for their limited present-day distribution.

Cavefish protection drives most management decisions at Ozark Cavefish NWR. This cautious approach accounts for the fact that the refuge currently is closed to public use.

"We don't have a good grasp of what is here," said Harp. "I can't say there are cave fish on this site. It's what we don't see here that's critical. It's kind of like seeing the tracks of an animal. You know they have been there. You know that area is probably important to them. We know they have been in the cave, but right here, we can't say that."

Harp said FWS officials are moving with deliberate care to learn enough about the area to ensure they can manage it wisely before opening it to public use. Understanding the area, says Harp, includes conducting inventories of plants and animals that live on - and beneath - the land. It includes learning how activities above ground might affect subterranean water quality.

The FWS is working to establish a partnership with the Conservation Department for managing the area. The endangered gray bat is known to inhabit the cave on the conservation area, and the flying mammals' droppings are one of the major sources of nutrients that cavefish need to survive. The state agency's efforts to ensure the survival of the bats plays into the FWS's goal of preserving the cavefish.

The FWS also is looking for area residents who might be interested in getting involved in the area's management.

The 15-year management plan currently under development contemplates adding a half-time refuge operations specialist to oversee refuge management. Other ambitions include hiring a half-time specialist to monitor and manage Ozark Cavefish NWR and placing a webcam at Hearrell Springs to provide a public window on the area. An interpretive kiosk also is part of long-term plans.

At present, only scientific, educational and interpretive uses are allowed on the refuge. Eventually, however, the FWS hopes to open at least part of the area to wildlife-based recreation, including hunting, fishing, environmental education, wildlife observation and photography.

Harp said Ozark Cavefish NWR's size makes it especially important.

"The fact it is so small makes it really special, because it is so concentrated. It is home to these endangered species, and without it, you won't have those and the various other species. They all go together, the gray bats' guano is the food source for the cavefish and the cavefish is a component of the system, too."

He said the refuge's location near Springfield, Joplin and Neosho gives it potential value for environmental education. "There is an opportunity to bring groups here and show them what the ecological components are in this area. As far as recreation such as fishing, if the stream is carefully managed from the outset so you don't get overcrowding or adverse effects, there are opportunities to have public use here in some form over the next five to 10 years."

For more information about Ozark Cavefish NWR and other small, high-quality examples of Missouri's many unique ecosystems, visit, or, or contact Natural Areas Coordinator, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, Missouri 65102-0180.

-Jim Low-
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