The Volokh Conspiracy

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Endangered species

Tennessee Snail Darter No Longer a Threatened Species

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has declared that the little fish that almost stopped completion of the Tellico Dam has recovered.


The snail darter, the small freshwater fish made famous by Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, is no longer in danger of becoming endangered and has been removed from the list of "threatened" species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Department of Interior announced yesterday.

The snail darter was initially listed as an "endangered" species in 1975, shortly after it was first discovered. The darter's discovery, and rarity, was seized upon by opponents of the TVA's proposed Tellico Dam as a way to stop the Tennessee project. The resulting litigation went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which declared that the ESA barred completion of the dam if doing so would modify or destroy the snail darter's habitat.

After the Court's decision in TVA v. Hill, Congress created a potential work-around for important projects–the creation of a committee known as the "God Squad" that could exempt projects from the ESA's strictures. And when no exemption for the Tellico Dam was forthcoming, Congress acted directly at the urging of a then-junior Congressman from Tennessee to mandate the dam's completion. That Congressman was Al Gore.

It turned out that the darter may not have been in as much jeopardy of extinction as was originally thought, as it was soon discovered in other parts of the southeastern United States. These discoveries, and successful efforts to transfer and build darter populations  in other waterways, led the FWS to downgrade the fish from from "endangered" to "threatened" in 1984. Subsequent conservation efforts helped lead to the darter's eventual recovery, according to the FWS.

The federal government is celebrating the snail darter's recovery as proof that the ESA works to conserve species. Others of us are not so convinced of the Act's effectiveness.