Turnaround for Fish Whose Case Made It to Supreme Court

The snail darter is no longer considered imperiled
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 4, 2022 2:14 PM CDT
Good News for Fish at Heart of Epic Conservation Fight
The snail darter is pictured in Knoxville, Tenn., on April 9, 2008. The U.S. Department of the Interior announced on Tuesday the Tennessee fish's official removal from the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife.   (Joe Howell/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP, File)

The snail darter, a tiny Southeastern fish at the center of an epic battle over Endangered Species Act protection in the 1970s, is no longer considered imperiled, officials announced Tuesday. The fish held up construction of the Tellico Dam in Tennessee for more than two years as biologists and others fought to protect its only known habitat, the free-flowing Little Tennessee River. The battle, which went all the way to the Supreme Court and beyond, is still sometimes cited as an example of environmental excess, although the reality is much more complicated, reports the AP. The dam eventually was built, with snail darters collected and transplanted into other rivers.

Snail darters went from being considered an endangered species to a threatened species in 1984. Three years ago, the Center for Biological Diversity, Jim Williams, and Zygmunt Plater petitioned to remove the fish from federal protection altogether. Williams is the biologist who listed the snail darter as endangered. Plater is the attorney who sued to protect it. The US Department of the Interior on Tuesday announced the snail darter's official removal from the federal list of threatened and endangered wildlife. It is the fifth fish species to be delisted because the population has recovered and the first in the eastern United States, according to the agency.

The protection of the snail darter was the first big test of the Endangered Species Act because protecting it meant blocking construction of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dam. Although the conflict was portrayed as environmental extremists versus economic realists, in reality, the Tellico Dam was quite small and unneeded to generate electricity. After Plater took the case to the Supreme Court and won, Congress created a high-level committee to consider possible exceptions to the Endangered Species Act. But that committee also ruled in favor of the fish, finding that the dam project did not make economic sense. Congress eventually exempted the Tellico Dam from the Endangered Species Act, through a rider to an appropriations bill.

story continues below

Plater said in an interview that their petition for delisting was not without reservations. Although the snail darter has recovered, several of its populations still depend on human intervention. The TVA adds liquid oxygen to the water at times and pulses dams to get silt off the gravel where the snail darters spawn. Those actions help produce conditions closer to that of a free flowing river. In that way, the Endangered Species Act still helped the snail darter. Its recovery was also helped by the Clean Water Act, which has reduced water pollution, Williams said. "The point is that the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act work," Williams said. "It's taken about 50 years to start seeing some results, but it took us 100 years to destroy things. Give it time."

(More Endangered Species Act stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.