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Illinois Cave Amphipod
Questions and Answers About Listing as Endangered
Why has the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Illinois cave amphipod as an endangered species?
Although the amphipod at one time inhabited six cave systems, more recent surveys have turned up amphipods in only three. Biologists fear that declining water quality is affecting the remaining amphipods, prompting the Service to list the species as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Amphipods are tiny creatures. How does the Service know they are in trouble?
Because of the amphipod's small size and remote environment, it is difficult to obtain accurate counts of the species. However, scientists can determine the number of amphipod populations existing and their range. While amphipods were once known from six cave sites, they are now found at only three, indicating a notable decline in numbers of amphipods.
How did the Service make its decision on whether to list the amphipod as endangered?
Under the Endangered Species Act, the Service must decide whether or not to list the amphipod based on the best scientific information available. The Service examines the species' status in relation to five factos outlined under the Act which help determine whether a species is endangered or threatened. They include loss or alteration of habitat; overuse for commercial, scientific or other purposes; disease or predation; inadequacy of existing laws or regulations; and other natural and manmade factors that could affect the species' existence. After analyzing available data, and gathering additional infromation through a public comment period, the Service determined that the amphipod is declining due to alteration of its habitat. Specifically, the water systems in the caves where the amphipod is found are experiencing a decline in water quality to the extent that the amphipod is likely to become extinct in the foreseeable future.
Why is it important to protect tiny, little-known creatures like the amphipod?
Most people will never see an Illinois cave amphipod. But they are important to humans. Cave amphipods are part of the natural system that supports all life. In addition, they are excellent indicators of the quality of the environment around them. Like the canary in the coal mine, cave amphipods can tell us when there is something wrong with our own environment. Because amphipods inhabit cave streams and are sensitive to pollutants, declines in their populations can indicate a decline in the water quality in their streams and the surrounding groundwater supply.
The role the amphipod plays is especially critical because of the "karst" region it inhabits in western Illinois. Karst is characterized by sinkholes and underground cave systems, with underground streams sometimes connecting caves. Unfortunately, the sinkholes often are used as dumping areas for trash, chemicals, and other pollutants, providing a direct link from the surface for contaminants entering underground streams and groundwater. When this happens, and animals like the cave amphipod begin to suffer, it is quite possible that humans using these water sources may also be affected.
How will listing the Illinois cave amphipod as an endangered species help it survive?
Now that the Service has listed the amphipod as endangered, it is protected by the Endangered Species Act. "Take" of the species, including harming or killing the amphipod or severely affecting its habitat, would be prohibited. In addition, Federal agencies that undertake activities that might affect the amphipod will now consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure they do not jeopardize the species. The Service will develop a recovery plan for the amphipod, with input from all interested parties. Recovery actions might include research on the effects of pollutants in the watershed, and cooperative efforts with landowners, and local planning and zoning boards to improve water quality.
Threats to the amphipod appear to come from degraded water quality due to contaminants, possibly from farm runoff or septic systems. How will the service's listing affect local landowners?
The Service does not expect that the listing will have a notable affect on the activities in the local area in the short term. At this point, the Service is working to gather more information, through several studies, on how contaminants enter the groundwater and cave systems, the nature and extent of those contaminants, their sources, and their effects on the amphipod, if any. When results of these studies are available, the Service will provide the information to an amphipod Recovery Team (made up of scientists and other interested parties) which will develop strategies to help ensure the survival of the amphipod. Such strategies will likely include working closely with local planning and zoning boards to encourage measures that not only conserve the amphipod but also help protect water sources in the region. They might also include agricultural Best Management Practices such as establishing buffer zones around sinkholes that feed into the groundwater and cave water systems, or other small modifications in land use that will help ensure that contaminants do not enter water systems. The Service will work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and local landowners to encourage implementation of such measures. As residential development continues in the karst region, the Service will work with local units of government, health departments, developers and planners to ensure that sewage and septic systems provide a safe and effective means of handling wastes and protecting water quality.
The Service's efforts to conserve the amphipod will complement efforts already underway by other agencies and groups, such as the Illinois Departments of Natural Resources and the Mississippi Karst Resources Planning Committee. These groups are currently working with landowners to encourage safe disposal of chemicals and pesticides, and other measures to protect water quality and human health and safety in the karst region.
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Prepared September 1998
Last updated: April 14, 2015