WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity, former federal biologist Jim Williams and law professor Zygmunt Plater petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today to lift Endangered Species Act protection from snail darters.
Thanks to government and citizen efforts, the little fish has now successfully achieved recovery and is no longer in danger of extinction.
The 3-inch-long fish gained fame in the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case Tennessee Valley Authority vs. Hill. The court upheld the newly passed Endangered Species Act at the request of conservationists and others who sought to protect the fish and its free-flowing habitat, along with 300 family farms, from the construction of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s highly controversial Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River.
When Congress later exempted the Tellico Dam from compliance with the conservation law, scientists introduced the doomed fish into other rivers. Because of the Act’s habitat protections and improved dam management, which includes pulsing for minimum flow and measures to increase oxygen, populations of the fish have now expanded to waterways in 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.
Named after its primary food source, small riverine mollusks, the snail darter was downlisted from “endangered” to “threatened” status in 1984 following the success of introductions. Recent surveys have detected reproducing darter populations that improved water management have helped spread to other locations in the main stem of the Tennessee River, and in previously unknown locations in Alabama, indicating that the goals in its recovery plan have been met.
“The uneconomical Tellico project was a boondoggle from the start,” said Zygmunt Plater, who wrote the citizens’ petition to save the darter in 1975 and represented the fish and the farmers all the way up through the Supreme Court victory. “The project wasn’t built for hydro power, although that was the anti-environmental trope. The federal agency justified it for recreation and creating a pretend city that was never built. A special presidential panel unanimously found that the dam was an economic mistake, but politics won and TVA flooded 300 family farms, desecrated Cherokee sacred sites and condemned a world-class river as well as the darter’s last significant natural population. Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, however, the extinction of the snail darter was ultimately avoided, and 40 years later we can celebrate its recovery.”
Since 2010, 25 species have been recovered and removed from the endangered species list. These include three subspecies of foxes from California’s Channel Islands, three humpback whale populations, eastern Steller sea lions, a species of songbird from Texas and Oklahoma, and a terrestrial Arkansas snail.
“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. “The snail darter’s not alone, as 85 percent of plants and animals protected by this critical law are on the road to recovery.”
Despite constant political efforts to undercut the 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.