The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed today to remove the snail darter from the endangered species list due to recovery. Thanks to government and collaborative efforts, the little fish is no longer in danger of extinction.
The three-inch-long fish — named after its primary food source, small riverine mollusks — gained fame in the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case Tennessee Valley Authority vs. Hill. The court upheld the newly passed Endangered Species Act at the request of conservationists and others who sought to protect the fish and its last free-flowing habitat in the Little Tennessee River, along with 300 family farms and countless Cherokee ancestral sites, from the construction of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s highly controversial Tellico Dam.
Still, political forces in Congress exempted the Tellico Dam from compliance with environmental laws by attaching a rider to the energy and water appropriations bill. Even though he opposed the contentious dam, President Carter signed the bill because he was afraid of losing support for the unrelated Panama Canal treaty.
Biologists then scrambled to transplant the doomed fish into other rivers in its historic range. Pushed by the Act’s protections, the Tennessee Valley Authority improved dam operations to increase oxygen and provide pulsing flows to reduce sediment on river bottoms below dams. Major reductions in pollution due to the Clean Water Act also contributed to the fish’s recovery throughout its range and populations of the darter now swim in several waterways in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.
“The recovery of the snail darter marks another success for the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act and shows the Tennessee Valley Authority can continue to improve dam operations, or even better consider dam removal to restore the magnificent flowing waters of the Southeast,” said Jim Williams, the former Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who wrote the original rule protecting the snail darter.
The snail darter is often used as an example by critics of the Endangered Species Act as having blocked a major hydropower dam. But the Tellico Dam, the last of 68 dams on the Tennessee River system, was primarily for recreation and the creation of a hypothetical city that was never built. After the Supreme Court halted the dam, a special Cabinet-level economic investigation revealed that the dam project had never been economically justified and would destroy more economic value by flooding farms than it would create.
“Thanks to the persistence of many people, the extinction of the snail darter was ultimately avoided, and today we can celebrate its recovery,” said Zygmunt Plater, the attorney who wrote the citizens’ petition to save the darter in 1975 and represented the fish and the farmers in the Supreme Court victory. “But the uneconomical Tellico project was a boondoggle from the start. The snail darter, like many other endangered species, signaled that human values are also endangered when their survival is threatened. The destruction of the Little Tennessee River shows that bad ecology is usually bad economics and it’s safer to save an animal’s natural habitat in the first place. Transplantation has to be a last resort because it's difficult to sustain, especially where it relies upon active conservation measures costing a great deal of money, forever. Natural habitats are surer, and most don't require any human intervention."
Once the delisting proposal is finalized, the fish will join more than 50 plants and animals that have successfully recovered under federal protection, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, Tennessee purple coneflowers, American alligators and humpback whales.
“Despite constant political attacks on the Endangered Species Act, the landmark law has prevented the extinction of 99% of the plants and animals under its care,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center. “Imperilment comes all too quickly, but recovery takes time, and the snail darter has now met the goals in its recovery plan and no longer needs protection.”