The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

For the win: The storied snail darter swims back from the brink

Written by

Snail DarterThe snail darter, which caused an epic battle around TVA plans to dam the Tellico River in the 1970s, was recently removed from the Endangered Species List. Jeremy Monroe/Tennessee Aquarium

The little fish that caused a maelstrom over a TVA dam project gets the last laugh

TELLICO — In a win for endangered species protected by federal law, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week the fabled snail darter’s recovery and removal from the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife. 

Native to the Tennessee River watershed in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee, the fish has long been an Endangered Species Act icon thanks to conservation efforts to save its habitat starting in the 1970s, when the Tennessee Valley Authority proposed construction of a dam on the Little Tennessee River. The snail darter (Percina tanasi) was central in the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, which solidified the scope of the then recently passed ESA. 

“We are heartened to see that the snail darter no longer faces the threat of extinction. Its growing numbers now stand as a testament to the success of the Act in recovering imperiled species,” says Ramona McGee, senior attorney and leader of SELC’s Wildlife Team. “This delisting comes as a result not only of the population’s current stability, but decades of protection and steady conservation actions that have expanded the range of this southern fish and shown the importance of preserving habitats essential for species endemic to our region.”  

Named for its diet of primarily freshwater snails, the fish was first listed as endangered in 1975, when it put TVA’s plans to build the Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River on hold. Its endangered status sparked a contentious legal challenge that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the court upheld the newly passed ESA at the request of conservation groups and local organizations, including Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the snail darter came to symbolize the significance of protections for often overlooked species. 

“Along with being a household name in many parts of Tennessee, the snail darter has long been a symbol of the Endangered Species Act,” said George Nolan, senior attorney in SELC’s Tennessee office. “Now, thanks to decades of conservation efforts, it can be hailed as one of the legislation’s many success stories.” 

Though the dam was eventually built after Congress amended the ESA in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling, the snail darter’s plight spurred years of conservation actions that helped the fish’s numbers climb.  

The finalized removal of the snail darter from the federal endangered species list follows an August 2021 proposed delisting, marking that the fabled fish no longer faces the threat of extinction. 

Rate this item
(2 votes)

Related items

  • Enviros to TVA: Retire the fossil-fuel pacifier
    in News

    Cumberland FPTVA’s Cumberland Fossil Plant near Clarksville is the subject of a suit filed by environmental groups, including Appalachian Voices and Southern Environmental Law Center.  Tennessee Valley Authority

    SELC, others file suit in hopes of dissuading TVA from future fossil options

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    CLARKSVILLE — On behalf of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices, the Southern Environmental Law Center asked TVA to prepare a supplemental environmental statement to address concerns with TVA’s draft environmental impact statement, which details the agency’s plans to retire the Cumberland Fossil Plant.

    The Cumberland Fossil Plant, about 22 miles southwest of Clarksville, is TVA’s largest coal-fired power station and was built between 1968 and 1973. TVA plans to retire each unit of the two-unit, coal-fired steam-generation plant separately: one unit no later than 2030, and the second unit no later than 2033. But the plant will need to be replaced, and TVA is currently considering three alternatives to fossil fuel, including natural gas and solar energy, according to its draft EIS.

    (Tennessee Valley Authority already plans to close down the Knoxville-area Bull Run fossil plant in Claxton next year).

  • Monarch butterflies, an ephemeral but regular glimpse of beauty, are fluttering toward extinction
    in News

     Bales Monarch on coneflowerA monarch butterfly, recently declared endangered despite decades of conservation, is seen atop a coneflower. Stephen Lyn Bales

    Dramatic monarch declines mean the bell tolls for we

    KNOXVILLE — Monarch butterflies are ephemeral by nature. The orange and black dalliances that flitter through our lives, our yards, and our countryside like motes of dust are here one minute and gone the next. We pause for a few seconds to watch the “flutter-bys” and then move on.

    For about all of the Lepidopteran family, where they come from, where they go, their raison d'être, we don’t ask. They are winged wisps that pass through our busy lives. But that is not true with this orange and black butterfly, named to honor King William III of England, the Prince of Orange. But two people did ask.

    Norah and Fred Urquhart lived in Southern Canada and in the late 1930s they noticed that the monarch butterflies seemed to all be fluttering south this time of the year. Could they possibly be migrating and if so, where did they go? The notion that a butterfly might migrate south for the winter seemed hard to fathom. Yes, broad-winged hawks migrate. But a flimsy butterfly?

  • Has the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians lost its ‘right way’ at Exit 407?
    in News

    Will West LongCherokee tribal council member, historian and ethnographer Will West Long holds a traditional Cherokee mask, which he often recreated. He was an active chronicler of Cherokee custom, heritage and tradition and died in 1947 on the Qualla Reservation in Swain County, North Carolina. WikiCommons

    As plans gel for massive new developments, has the Eastern Band lost its ancient way?

    SEVIERVILLE — The Tennessee Department of Transportation is eyeing a second interchange for exit 407 at Highway 66 along Interstate I-40 in Sevier County. 

    Exit 407, already one of the most congested interchanges in Southern Appalachia, accesses the main highway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the nation. The park reported a record 14 million visitors in 2021.

    The exit also serves crowds flocking to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.

    But the new interchange would primarily serve a 200-acre development to be called Exit 407: The Gateway to Adventure.   

    Scheduled to open spring 2023, and fully operational in 2024, it’s expected to attract 6.7 million people annually. The first phase includes a theme park and a 74,000-square-foot convenience store with 120 gas pumps, making it the world’s largest such store.

  • U.S. Supreme Court’s recent clean-air ruling renews spotlight on fossil-energy producers like TVA
    in News

    TVA 4 Cumberland FP

    Supreme Court air-pollution ruling calls into stark context all that must be done

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    KNOXVILLE — The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling limiting the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions that cause climate change has renewed the spotlight on the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public utility and Tennessee’s primary source of electricity.

    The case involved EPA efforts to implement a key provision of the Clean Air Act in a challenge brought by 15 Republican-led states. That provision, which never went into effect, would have required existing power plants to shift from dirty sources of energy — such as coal — to cleaner sources, including solar and wind, as part of an urgent effort to reduce global warming.

  • Rare bipartisan legal effort under way for widespread wildlife protections
    NYT: Recovering America’s Wildlife Act a big bipartisan push to preserve animal species

    New York Times columnist Margaret Renkl noted recently that a precious opportunity has presented itself to strengthen wildlife-protection laws and add to environmental protections across the nation.

    The Nashville-based journalist said the act, known as RAWA, “is poised to become the single most effective tool in combating biodiversity loss since the Endangered Species Act.” The resolution is carried in the House by Michigan Democrat Rep. Debbie Dingell.

    “This bill provides funding for (1) the conservation or restoration of wildlife and plant species of greatest conservation need; (2) the wildlife conservation strategies of states, territories, or the District of Columbia; and (3) wildlife conservation education and recreation projects,” according to the U.S. Congress.

  • Opponents of Oak Ridge waste dump, citing comms breakdown, urge extension of public comment period
    How and why did things go wrong at the EMWMFImage from a 2018 memorandum authored by experts including former Department of Energy employees in Oak Ridge. EMWMF is the present landfill that has a history of failures and is reaching capacity. Ecologists say, after a decade DOE still is not adequately addressing waste acceptance criteria and feasible alternatives.

     

    Public can comment in person Tuesday night in Oak Ridge on proposed DOE waste dump

    OAK RIDGE — The Southern Environmental Law Center blistered the Department of Energy in a letter ahead of a May 17 hearing on construction of a toxic-waste landfill that opponents said poses contamination threats to portions of the Clinch River watershed and downstream TVA reservoirs.

    The hearing is set for 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, May 17 at the Pollard Technology Conference Center, 210 Badger Ave. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. will be accepted through June 7.

    The Department of Energy wants to bury contaminated debris from demolition of Manhattan Project-era complexes and associated legacy toxins from the Oak Ridge Reservation. The drawn-out debate about how best to safely store the materials now focuses on the transparency of the decision process and the health of the Bear Creek watershed and downstream pollution threats to the Clinch River. 

  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory land is an international treasure of biodiversity
    in News

    res1.jpgAquatic ecologist Natalie Griffiths studies nutrients and contaminants in the Weber Branch watershed, which is in the Oak Ridge Environmental Research Park. Courtesy Carlos Jones/ORNL

    ORNL research lands are an international ecological benchmark and diverse wonderland of trees, plants, mammals, reptiles and amphibians

    Abby Bower is a science writer for Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

    The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is a hub for world-class science. The nearly 33,000-acre space surrounding the lab is less known, but also unique. The Oak Ridge Reservation (ORR) is a key hotspot for biodiversity in the Southeast and is home to more than 1,500 species of plants and animals.

    At the intersection of Anderson and Roane counties is an important subset of the reservation — the Oak Ridge National Environmental Research Park, or NERP — a 20,000-acre ORNL research facility that has been internationally recognized by UNESCO as an official biosphere reserve unit.

    “The National Environmental Research Park is a living laboratory and a major resource for conducting ecological studies,” said Evin Carter, an ORNL wildlife ecologist and director of the Southern Appalachian Man and the Biosphere Program, or SAMAB. The NERP has been a core part of SAMAB, which has focused on sustainable economic development and conserving biodiversity in Southern Appalachia since 1989.

    With ORNL researchers and scientists from government agencies and academia using the NERP for diverse experiments each year, the park lives up to its status as a living laboratory.

    It also lives up to its reputation as a biodiversity hotspot. As one of seven DOE-established environmental research parks reflecting North America’s major ecoregions, it represents the Eastern Deciduous Forest. The NERP comprises parts of this ecoregion that have been identified repeatedly as priorities for global biodiversity conservation, Carter said.

    This designation means more than ever as climate change alters ecosystems and biodiversity declines worldwide. According to a landmark international report, on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, around one million plant and animal species are currently threatened with extinction. 

  • Hai! It’s a summer baby cuteness boom at the Tennessee Aquarium

    The Tennessee Aquariums Gentoo Penguin chick weighs more than two kilograms at just 28 days oldThe Tennessee Aquarium’s Gentoo penguin chick weighs more than 2 kilograms at 28 weeks old. Casey Phillips/Tennessee Aquarium 

    Baby penguin, endangered turtles and puffer fish are the newest additions to the Tennessee Aquarium

    (Casey Phillips is a communications specialist at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga)

    As any parent knows, kids tend to do whatever you least expect. In the case of an endangered four-eyed turtle hatchling at the Tennessee Aquarium, however, merely existing was — in itself — a huge surprise. 

    On July 11, a volunteer was tending an enclosure in a backup area of the River Journey exhibit. This habitat was only supposed to house a female endangered four-eyed turtle (Sacalia quadriocellata, a largely montaine species native to parts of China and Vietnam), but the volunteer soon discovered that the adult turtle wasn’t alone. Perched atop a layer of vegetation was a tiny hatchling that, by all accounts, shouldn’t have been there.

    “The adult female hadn’t been with a male in over a year, so we did not check to see if she had laid this year,” says Bill Hughes, the aquarium’s herpetology coordinator. “To say the least, finding an egg, let alone a hatchling, was unexpected.”

    Tennessee Aquarium Herpetology Coordinator holds a recently hatched Four eyed TurtleTennessee Aquarium Herpetology Coordinator Bill Hughes holds a recently hatched endangered four-eyed turtle. Casey Phillips/Tennessee Aquarium

  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists keep an eye on endangered fine-rayed pigtoe mussels in Little River

    Daily Times: Biologists keep a close eye on imperiled mussel populations in Little River and beyond

    The Little River in Blount County just west of Great Smoky Mountains National Park hosted just one of five known fine-rayed pigtoed mussel populations when federal officials placed the mussel on the Endangered Species List in 1976. 

    The Daily Times in Maryville reports that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now conducting a regular five-year review of the mussel's status. It is one of at least 12 mussel species in the river, which has its headwaters in the Great Smoky Mountains and flows through Townsend on its way to its ultimate destination: the Tennessee River. Little River is the main source of water for an expanding Blount County population.

    Native mussel populations face the same threats as many non-game fish in the Southern Appalachians. Oxygen is depleted by sediment plumes, which also smother fish eggs, and many mussels rely on small fish to reproduce.

    “Reproduction depends on host fish. During the larval stage the young are stuck together in a packet that resembles the prey of shiners and minnows, which is how they become attached to the fish gills or fins to grow for a few weeks,” the Daily Times reports.

  • Face your fears: It’s time to have a global conversation about spider conservation
    in News

    Sue Cameron USFWSU.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Susan Cameron searches moss mats for the spruce-fir moss spider in this USFWS photo.

    European spidey senses should give us pause across the pond.

    This story was originally published by The Revelator.

    Despite their enormous ecological values, new research reveals we don’t understand how most arachnid species are faring right now — or do much to protect them.

    Spiders need our help, and we may need to overcome our biases and fears to make that happen.

    “The feeling that people have towards spiders is not unique,” says Marco Isaia, an arachnologist and associate professor at the University of Turin in Italy. “Nightmares, anxieties and fears are very frequent reactions in ‘normal’ people,” he concedes.