Dozens of rare animals and plants in Kentucky will be considered for protection as endangered species under federal law, though the process for many won't start for years.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week that it would study whether 374 species in 12 southeastern states should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
That list included 36 species in Kentucky, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the petition that led to the review.
The review will be the first of its kind in the Southeast, said Tom MacKenzie, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife.
However, in most cases the work won't start for five years, MacKenzie said.
That's because of staff and funding limitations, and because the service will first evaluate 250 other species covered in a lawsuit settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity and another environmental group, according to a news release.
The species that federal authorities will study are aquatic, riparian and wetland animals and plants — species that live in or near water and wetlands.
The list from Kentucky includes salamanders, fish, freshwater mussels, crayfish and plants such as the Rockcastle wood-aster.
The species face threats from habitat destruction, pollution, climate change and invasive species, the Center for Biological Diversity said in a news release.
The southeastern United States, which includes Kentucky, is home to more freshwater species than anywhere in the world, but some have died out, the center said.
"Endangered Species Act protection for these remaining species will help stem the tide of extinction and herald the beginning of a new era of species protection in the Southeast," Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the center, said.
There already were 11 species in Kentucky on the waiting list for protection as endangered species, and four more that had been proposed for listing, said Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist with the center.
The decision to review the 374 species in Kentucky and the Southeast means Fish and Wildlife found evidence they warrant protection.
However, it is not a finding that they should be protected, MacKenzie said.
If any of the species are listed as endangered, it could affect development that has an impact on their habitat. That doesn't mean development would be stopped, however.
It would mean that on any project that gets federal funding, such as a highway, or requires a federal permit, such as a coal mine, developers would have to consult with Fish and Wildlife, which could require steps to minimize the impact, Curry said.
Fish and Wildlife works to let development proceed while also protecting species, MacKenzie said.