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Endangered animals found in Missouri backyard cave

REPUBLIC, Mo. _ State wildlife officials have found endangered cavefish and crustaceans in a natural spring on land owned by a state legislator.

State Rep. Jim Viebrock, a Republican who represents western Greene County, said he first discovered the albino animals two years ago when he ventured into the cave opening that leads to the spring 22 feet underground.

"I was shining a light down there one day and I saw something move," said Viebrock, who has owned the farm west of Republic for six years. "It was a big albino crawdad."

A state conservation officer later confirmed Viebrock's find and determined the cave also includes endangered blind Ozark cavefish. It's the 35th known cavefish site in the greater Ozarks area, the Missouri Department of Conservation said.

Eighteen of those sites are in Missouri in caves or hand-dug wells, said Blake Stephens, a fisheries management biologist with the Department of Conservation.

Conservation workers have come out to Viebrock's property to study the spring and conduct tests to make sure his nearby septic system is working properly and not contaminating the cave.

But Viebrock, who is running for re-election against fellow Republican Mark Stuppy, is blocking other efforts to protect the land because, as vice chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee for the department, he said he wants to avoid an apparent conflict of interest.

"They want to protect this hole," Viebrock said as he stood on a large slab of rock placed over the cave entrance. "I refuse to take any of them because of my position. They've been told and told and told they cannot spend a penny on my property."

Scientists know very little about cavefish and where they come from because the fish are so small and rare, Stephens said. But they have long been connected to water quality, with early Ozarks settlers determining whether a spring was safe by whether cavefish were swimming in it.

Stephens said a study at Viebrock's cave determined it's part of an underground network in southwest Greene County that extends for 9.88 square miles.

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Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.springfieldnews-leader.com

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