This Tiny, Endangered Fish Stopped Construction of a Federal Dam in 1975. Now, the Species Has Finally Recovered

The snail darter is no longer in threat of extinction and can be removed from the Endangered Species List

Snail Darter
The snail darter, a small fish that stopped construction of a federal dam project, is no longer threatened with extinction and can come off the Endangered Species List, wildlife officials say. USFWS

The snail darter, which was at the center of controversy in the 1970s when it held up construction of a federal dam project, is no longer in danger of extinction, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

A concerted effort by conservationists and state officials in Tennessee, where the dam was eventually built, saved the species by relocating it to other rivers. The fish—which eats primarily freshwater snails, hence its name—has recovered to sufficient numbers where it no longer needs federal protection, according to FWS officials. Part of the perch family, it grows to about 3.5 inches in length.

“The Endangered Species Act was passed to ensure all wildlife, even species that some might view as insignificant, deserve to be preserved for future generations,” Martha Williams, FWS principal deputy director, says in a statement. “It is very fitting that this fish, which was once a source of controversy, became the subject of cooperation and partnerships to save it. We would like to thank the many partners, including the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which made this possible.”

The snail darter became a poster fish of sorts for the Endangered Species Act (ESA), passed in 1973, when its protection status was legally challenged and the landmark case went to the Supreme Court, which upheld the legislation. The act has since come to symbolize the importance of preserving nature to a new generation of environmentalists.

“I’ve been doing this for 28 years now and this is stuff that we studied in college — the whole controversy,” Kristi Young, a deputy manager for the FWS’ Division of Conservation and Classification, tells Dino Grandoni of the Washington Post. “The first Supreme Court case showed that the Endangered Species Act meant business.”

When the snail darter was first listed as endangered in 1975, it put plans to build the Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River on indefinite hold. After the Supreme Court upheld the snail darter’s protection in 1978, Congress exempted the dam from the law so it could be constructed.

As the case made its way through the courts, conservationists with support from the TVA scrambled to save the small fish by moving it to other waterways. That effort was successful and federal officials changed the species’ status to “threatened” in 1984.

“Thanks to the persistence of many people, the extinction of the snail darter was ultimately avoided, and today we can celebrate its recovery,” Zygmunt Plater, the attorney who first penned the petition to save the fish in 1975, tells Kimberlee Kruesi of the Associated Press.