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The Story of Tellico Dam and the Snail Darter

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Bgpappa is an American history buff and writer. He lives in Sacramento.

The Snail Darter: The Tiny Fish That Caused a Big Battle

The Snail Darter: The Tiny Fish That Caused a Big Battle

Big Dam, Little Fish

The snail darter is a tiny little fish that is native to the waters of Tennessee. In 1975, the snail darter was placed on the newly created Endangered Species List. In 1984, its status was lowered to threatened.

Even though the snail darter is a tiny little mud fish, it created a giant controversy. In TVA v. Hill 437 U.S. 153 (1978), the United States Supreme Court affirmed an injunction that stopped the Tennessee Valley Authority from completing the Tellico Dam project because the proposed project would destroy the snail darter’s habitat. In short, a fish that is only as big as a paper clip stopped construction of a dam.

The Background

Along the Little Tennessee River, the Tennessee Valley Authority began construction of the Tellico Dam and Reservoir Project in 1967. The Dam would bring jobs to the area and bring needed useful water to the area as opposed to the shallow and fast-moving river the residents currently had.

The Endangered Species Act

In 1973, after construction of the dam began, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act. The Congressional Purpose of the Act was to protect endangered animal life. The ESA authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to declare an animal species endangered and to identify the critical habitat of the creatures. When an animal is designated endangered, government agencies must do everything they can to protect the animal from extinction.

The policy was bold. The language was clear. The US Government would take all steps necessary to ensure the survival of all animal species.

Discovery of the Snail Darter

Also in 1973, Dr. David Etnier discovered a previously unknown fish, the snail darter. Dr. Etnier estimated there were only 10,000 to 15,000 of the species left in the world. Dr. Etnier brought the status of the snail darter to the attention of environmentalists. In 1975, the snail darter was listed as an endangered special and the area of the Tellico Dam was designated as the snail darter’s critical habitat.

Reaction of Congress

Congress was not at all happy, especially the members of Congress from Tennessee and surrounding areas. The dam meant jobs, electricity, and other improvements in the area. Congress immediately approved funds for completion of the Tellico Dam and passed legislation stating that the ESA does not prohibit construction already in process.

The Trial Court Agreed With the TVA But Was Overruled by the Court of Appeals

The Trial Court Agreed With the TVA But Was Overruled by the Court of Appeals

Lower Court History

Environmentalists immediately sued and sought an injunction stopping construction of the Tellico Dam. The trial Court refused to issue the injunction, finding that the project was too far along and Congress could not have intended to cease construction of projects already in process.

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The trial court’s order denying the injunction was appealed to the United States Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court’s order and ordered an injunction be put in place. The Court of Appeal held that the Court was not in the position to determine the current project status, and the status was irrelevant in determining the social and scientific costs of allowing a species to go extinct.

The Showdown: The Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals and ordered the TVA to halt construction of the Tellico Dam. The Court held that the construction of the Tellico Dam was a clear violation of section 7 of the ESA because its completion would eradicate an entire species. The Court held that Congress was clear in the ESA that the survival of Endangered Species was of utmost importance and demanded that everything must by done by the Government to ensure the survival of a species.

The Court noted that this meant halting construction of the Tellico Dam, even though money and resources had already been spent. The Court held that because the value of an endangered species was incalculable, the cost to ensure their survival outweighed the costs already expended on the Tellico Dam.

Many Questioned the Decision But the Court and Congress Had Spoken

Many Questioned the Decision But the Court and Congress Had Spoken

The Aftermath

Many people questioned the Court’s ruling. Why save the life of a tiny little mud fish nobody knew existed, waste millions of dollars, and stop the improvement of the Tennessee valley? It's a fair question.

The first answer is the Congress of the United States passed legislation stating in clear terms that this should be result. The ESA is clear: The survival of endangered species has the highest priority, and government agencies were mandated to take all action to protect these creatures. Some argue that Congress’ intent was misconstrued, but the legislative history of the ESA and the Act itself spell out in clear terms what Congress intended—and it intended to save Endangered Species at all costs. Since the case of the snail darter, the ESA has been amended to add softer language and give the ability to alternative habitats for the creatures.

The second answer is the snail darter should be protected because, as the Supreme Court noted, we don’t know the cost of allowing species to go extinct from human intervention. Sure, animals go extinct in the wild every day, and humans should intervene when nature selects creatures for extinction. But when humans cause the extinction of animals, we don’t know enough about the effects to simply eradicate whole species from the Earth.

A Balance Must Be Struck Between Human Progress and the Protection of Nature

A Balance Must Be Struck Between Human Progress and the Protection of Nature

A Case Filled With Contradictions

The story of the snail darter is a story filled with contradictions: big dam, little fish. There is the contradiction from Congress itself: Set out a bold national policy only to try to take it back when the real consequences of what was done are realized. There is the contradiction of the science itself: After the case was over, it was discovered that there are many different populations of snail darters and they are abundant enough to be taken off the Endangered Species List.

The only thing that remains constant is that human beings need to take a step back and determine what consequences our actions have on nature. The ESA (through the NEPA process) ensures that we pause to try to realize the consequences of our actions before we learn them the hard way.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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