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
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
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
"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
For more information about Ozark Cavefish NWR and
other small, high-quality examples of Missouri's
many unique ecosystems, visit
www.mdc.mo.gov/areas/natareas/, or contact
Natural Areas Coordinator, Missouri Department of
Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, Missouri
National Wildlife Refuge Books