Snail darter’s recovery tells an Endangered Species Act success story
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Today, 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.
Native to the Tennessee River watershed in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee, the fish has long been an Endangered Species Act icon thanks to conservation efforts to save its habitat starting in the 1970s, when the Tennessee Valley Authority proposed construction of a dam in the Little Tennessee River. The snail darter was central in the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, which solidified the scope of the recently passed ESA.
“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 Act in recovering imperiled species,” says Ramona McGee, Senior Attorney and Leader of Southern Environmental Law Center 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.”
Named for its diet of primarily freshwater snails, the fish was first listed as endangered in 1975, when it put TVA’s plans to build the Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River on hold. Its endangered status sparked a contentious legal challenge that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the court upheld the newly passed ESA at the request of conservation groups and local organizations, including Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the snail darter came to symbolize the significance of protections for often overlooked species.
“Along with being a household name in many parts of Tennessee, the snail darter has long been a symbol of the Endangered Species Act,” said George Nolan, senior attorney in SELC’s Tennessee office. “Now, thanks to decades of conservation efforts, it can be hailed as one of the legislation’s many successes stories.”
Though the dam was eventually built after Congress amended the ESA in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling, the snail darter’s plight spurred years of conservation actions that helped the fish’s numbers climb.
The finalized removal of the snail darter from the federal endangered species list follows an August 2021 proposed delisting marking that the fabled fish no longer faces the threat of extinction.