News | November 7, 2022

The once-endangered snail darter is now a Southern success story

(©U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Last month, in a win for endangered species protected by federal law, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the beloved snail darter’s recovery and removal from the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife. 

“We are heartened to see that the snail darter no longer faces the threat of extinction. Its growing numbers now stand as a testament to the success of the Endangered Species Act in recovering imperiled species,” said Ramona McGee, senior attorney and leader of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Wildlife Program. “This delisting comes as a result not only of the population’s current stability, but decades of protection and steady conservation actions that have expanded the range of this southern fish and shown the importance of preserving habitats essential for species endemic to our region.”   

The announcement was the latest chapter in a saga that made the snail darter – a small fish native to waterways in Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia – the face of the Endangered Species Act and a household name in many parts of the South.  

The snail darter was thrust into the national spotlight in the 1970s when its discovery brought plans to dam the Little Tennessee River to a halt.  

An aerial view of a dam.
The Tellico Dam. (©TVA)

The Tennessee Valley Authority had been planning to build the Tellico Dam on the river, which, unlike other dams that TVA had built in the early part of the 20th century, would not generate electricity. Instead, the agency aimed to create a lake in order to draw tourism to the area. Despite strong opposition from local communities, construction on the dam began in 1967.  

After construction began, biologists found the snail darter in the river and petitioned to have it federally listed as an endangered species under the recently-passed Endangered Species Act. The Fish and Wildlife Service granted that, and also designated the Little Tennessee River as critical habitat for the fish.

Conservationists then sued TVA to stop construction of the Tellico Dam, which would have likely wiped out the known populations of the snail darter and degraded their important ecosystem.  

The snail darter, a once-overlooked, tiny fish, came to symbolize the significance of the law’s protections for species big and small.

Senior Attorney Ramona McGee, Leader of SELC’s Wildlife Program

The case worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and became the first major test of the Endangered Species Act, which had been passed just five years earlier. In 1978, the Supreme Court sided with the snail darter, writing in its decision that “the plain intent of Congress in enacting [the Endangered Species Act] was to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost.” 

“The 1978 landmark ruling established the scope of the Endangered Species Act. From then on, the snail darter — a once-overlooked, tiny fish — came to symbolize the significance of the law’s protections for species big and small,” McGee said.  

After the ruling, Congress passed an exception to the Endangered Species Act that allowed TVA to finish building the Tellico Dam. But even though the dam was completed in 1979, the snail darter’s plight spurred years of conservation actions that helped the fish’s numbers climb. 

Now, the snail darter serves not only as an example of the strength of the Endangered Species Act, but as an example of its success as well.  

SELC fights for at-risk species.