Sohn: Snail darter is a success of science and democracy

The Snail Darter Percina tanasi

Once again, we have proof that we can - when we will - make a difference for the better in our environment, thanks to science, laws and regulations.

We saw it with bald eagles, which were headed for extinction because a now-banned pesticide made their eggs so fragile they cracked long before the forming chicks became viable.

Now we see it again with a local endangered species superstar: the snail darter, Percina tanasi, which for years stalled the construction of the Tellico Dam.

On Tuesday, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 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 snail darter 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," said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the center.

In fact, there are far more successes to the Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, than just the bald eagle and the snail darter. Some 85 percent of plants and animals protected by this critical law "are on the road to recovery," Curry said.

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 snail darter story, however, was always bigger than just a fight over a fish. It became the poster child of water conservation and water management, leading to a change in philosophy about dam construction. Along the way, the battle between TVA and conservationists over the Tellico Dam in Loudon County gained national attention as a lawsuit titled Tennessee Valley Authority vs. Hill made it way through the court system and up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Hill in the suit was then-law student and now longtime Chattanooga attorney Hank Hill. Opponents pointed to the enormous 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. TVA 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.

Science, Hill and conservationists won, with the Supreme Court citing the importance of the Endangered Species Act.

Moreover, thanks to science, government and citizen efforts, the little fish has now successfully achieved recovery and is swimming in four states - Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi - after biologists grew its populations and moved it to other rivers. The snail darter was downlisted from "endangered" to "threatened" status in 1984 following the success of those introductions.

In the meantime, Congress in 1979 exempted the Tellico Dam from compliance - amending the Endangered Species Act - as work on the dam had begun and was nearly complete before the passing of the Act. The dam is complete now and working. It does not produce electricity, but does direct almost all of the flow of the Little Tennessee River into a canal that enters the Tennessee River on the upstream side of Fort Loudoun Dam, adding to the hydropower capacity at that dam.

Despite constant political efforts to undercut the Endangered Species Act, which is being funded at only 3 percent of what is needed to recover species, the landmark law has saved roughly 99 percent of protected wildlife since its creation in 1973, demonstrating its overwhelming success, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Science is important. So is democracy. And they both work, when we insist.