Small Tennessee fish that made big headlines no longer needs federal protection, conservation group argues

Snail Darter / Photo from Bernie Kuhajda / Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute

A conservation group has recommended that a small fish that made big headlines in the 1970s be removed from the threatened and endangered species list now that the group believes it has fully recovered and is no longer in danger of extinction.

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday to lift Endangered Species Act protection from snail darters - a species of fish not much longer than a golf tee that was discovered in the early 1970s in the Little Tennessee River. The fish is no longer in danger of extinction thanks to the efforts of citizens and governmental groups, according to a release from the center.

"The Endangered Species Act's strength is that decisions are based on the best available science, and science now shows that the snail darter is recovered and a conservation success," Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the center, said via a release. "The snail darter's not alone, as 85 percent of plants and animals protected by this critical law are on the road to recovery."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will now consult with its biologists to see if it should move forward with removing the fish's federal listing.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife has been working with our partners for years to conserve the snail darter, the same type of work we undertake with many other species. As with all such petitions we receive, we will review the information provided in this petition and consider it carefully, consistent with the Endangered Species Act," reads a statement from service spokesman Philip Kloer.

photo Snail Darter / Photo from Bernie Kuhajda / Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute

The 3-inch-long fish became the center of a national debate between the importance of conservation and water management. A dam project would have pushed the fish to extinction, conservationists argued at the time. They worked to stop construction of the dam - the Tellico Dam in Loudon County - and helped get the fish listed on the newly-formed Endangered Species Act. They then pushed Tennessee Valley Authority to halt construction. The battle gained national attention as a lawsuit worked its way through the court system and up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It marked a change in philosophy for many about dam construction. Opponents pointed to the vast change the dam caused to the darter's ecosystem. The slower moving water and changes in oxygen levels would kill the fish. Opponents also wanted to protect area farms and Cherokee land from the flooding the dam would cause. Tennessee Valley Authority and its supporters believed the dam was needed for water control, power generation and other needs and that halting construction was a drastic measure to save such a small fish.

The saga resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court case Tennessee Valley Authority vs. Hill - named for then-law student and now long-time Chattanooga attorney Hank Hill. Hill, Zygmunt Plater, who wrote the citizens' petition to save the darter, and supporters ultimately won the case, with the Supreme Court citing the importance of the Endangered Species Act.

Congress later exempted the Tellico Dam from compliance - amending the Endangered Species Act - as work on the dam had begun before the passing of the legislation. Biologists moved the fish into other rivers in the region, protected it and the population has grown through Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.

"The recovery of the snail darter marks another success for the Endangered Species Act, and it's a prod to the Tennessee Valley Authority to continue to strive to improve its dam operations or to even 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.

Williams and Plater are the authors of the petition to delist the snail darter.

"After 40 years of intensive good faith official and lay efforts in mitigation of the loss of the major natural population of the darter in the Little Tennessee River, the sustainable health of the darter's populations in diverse locations allows us now to declare a victory for the [Endangered Species Act]," the 15-page petition reads.

Contact Mark Pace at or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.