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The Story of Tellico Dam and the Snail Darter


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.

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.

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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.


John Crowder on March 08, 2019:

There are not "many different types of snail darters." The snail darter (Percina tanasi) is a distinct species, as are the numerous other species of darters in the genus Percina. The snail darter continues to be protected under provisions of the Endangered Species Act. Its status has been downlisted to "threatened." The descriptor "mud fish" is inapplicable to the snail darter, whose preferred habitat is clear, cool, rapidly flowing currents and rocky habitat.

Zyg Plater on February 09, 2017:

The author of the post unfortunately got most facts--and hence most of his asserted conclusions--wrong, undoubtedly due in part to the fact that the media sources he referenced got them wrong. The actual factual narrative is far more affirmative and significant in terms of the existential requirements of humans, natural systems, and sustainable democracy. See THE SNAIL DARTER AND THE DAM, Yale Univ. Press, 2014.

bgpappa (author) from Sacramento, California on January 03, 2014:

Totally agree Zyg. Lots of layers to this story, which has updated since I wrote this years ago.

Thanks for the input.

Zyg Plater on January 03, 2014:

There is a lot more intrigue to be seen within the Snail Darter Case, a case that continues to resonate in our current environmental political context, where Congress continues to display dysfunctional behavior patterns that threaten human as well as ecological habitats. And it's a rollicking good story.

Check out The Snail Darter and the Dam: How Pork-Barrel Politics Endangered a Little Fish and Killed a River (Yale U. Press).

bgpappa (author) from Sacramento, California on January 19, 2013:

Thanks for stopping by

Daniel Hudon on August 08, 2012:

Nice post. Without being too philosophical, I think we should ask what we mean by "progress". The electric/power company stood to make a lot of money from that dam and today the same battle is being waged over the Keystone pipeline and tomorrow the battle will be over fracking. I definitely want a world where we have jobs and economic stability, but not at the cost of long-term environmental degradation. The human addiction to growth, masquerading as progress, is causing us to lose species at mass extinction rates. We're less connected to nature now because we have to drive farther and farther to enjoy it. We need to start thinking about the long-term benefits of protecting nature rather than short-term human-centered notions of "progress".

I invite you to drop by http://econowblog.blogspot.com for more.

bgpappa (author) from Sacramento, California on May 19, 2011:

I think that is one fair way to look at it. But the science about habitats and the "butterfly" affect was very persuasive as well. Hurt a few to save many was the theory. Although, it is easy to say that when you are the one not in harm's way.

Thanks for the comment.

ruffridyer from Dayton, ohio on May 19, 2011:

I remember all the hub bub about the fish vs the dam. I recall after it was decided to build the dam Then the news media interviewed the people who were gonna lose their homes. The dam fish was more important than the people!

bgpappa (author) from Sacramento, California on April 25, 2011:


I didn't write the 12 days ago, its the site. But the comment was written 12 days ago. What would be your answer, kill all the animals regardless of the overall effect to the environment. My point was there needs to be a balance.

Rod Coale on April 25, 2011:

First of all I would like to know what do the (i.e. 12 days ago)mean? From when? Your article is not dated. On a more up to date but similar issue, what do you think about what's going on in the Central Valley of California? Farm land that used ro be called "the Breadbasket of America" has been destroyed to save a two inch fish - the delta smelt. Another blatant "animals before humans" EPA agenda. EPA has NOTHING to do with protection but everything to do about CONTROL.

bgpappa (author) from Sacramento, California on April 13, 2011:


The article was about the Court case and the issues raised by it, not the project itself. And the balance you speak of needs to weighed. What is the answer to your question, what would have been a better alternative?

Thanks for the comment.

Amanda on April 12, 2011:

The article is arguing the balance between saving an endangered species and 'improvement of the Tennessee valley.' However, the conclusion never asked whether the Tennessee valley was improved.

Ben W is absolutely right. The dam was unwarranted, and the promised jobs did not come to fruition. In fact, the "God committee" assigned to this case determined that the amount of money needed to finish the final 5% of the project itself would not warrant an equal return benefit. Meaning that completion of the dam cost more money than would be generated by the new jobs and developments that would be created.

It is important to look at alternatives. The Snail Darter was successfully transplanted. But what would have been a better alternative to the dam?

bgpappa (author) from Sacramento, California on February 11, 2011:

What issues are you referring to, there are so many.

Sandra Cole on February 10, 2011:

I am doing a debate on the good and bad of the Telico Dam, the SNail Darter issue and the implications for outdoor recreation before and after the dam was built. The few people that post on here seem to know a lot. Would you post a response for me, please. I would be curious to know what you think of the issues listed above. Thank you very much, Sandra C

bgpappa (author) from Sacramento, California on November 29, 2009:

Agreed, progress has consequences.

Where I live they built a dam over a historic city. When the water is low, you can actually see the tops of the old buildings.

THanks for the comment.

Ben w on November 29, 2009:

Tellico Dam has never provide the promised jobs dependent upon the lake, generated electricity is a minumialif any amount from the project. It destroyed a lot of Indian history and took away a lot of peoples pride and livelyhood giving nothing back in return, all my, along with many others past is buried under that water and other than a place for the rich to flaunt their money and ride their big boats it has no real meaning to our area . It took a clean free flowing river and transformed it into a lake that the fish are dangerous to eat and if truth be known it's probably not safe to swin in either. It has brought no real advances to income levels and it hasn't helped the people who gave up the most. We are not against progress so show us the progress and we will subside.

bgpappa (author) from Sacramento, California on November 18, 2009:

Thanks so much for reading.

Steve Andrews from Lisbon, Portugal on November 18, 2009:

This is a great story and a great hub about a tiny fish!

bgpappa (author) from Sacramento, California on October 05, 2009:

Ya, read the bill. My favorite part is them passing a later law saying that they didn't mean what they said. Bill literally said that.

Thanks for reading and your comments.

Hmrjmr1 from Georgia, USA on October 05, 2009:

Great Hub Well written. I remember all the snail darter drama, but at the end of the day the law is the law, so to our lawmakers be careful what you pass since you'll get the consequences intended or not.

I agree with you about not knowing where the balance is, junk science is everywhere..

bgpappa (author) from Sacramento, California on May 08, 2009:

Thanks James, always enjoy your input.

I am a liberal and an environmentalist but not sure where the balance lies. Human progress is very important and I believe highways, dams, etc, need to be built. I am not sure where the balance lies. I think just stopping to think about the consequences is enough. In the snail darter case, the science was wrong. Not sure what the answer is.

James A Watkins from Chicago on May 08, 2009:

The Mitchell's Satyr Butterfly stopped an important highay from being built in my home town of Benton Harbor, Michigan for ten years. $60,000,000 had to be spent to protect it's habitat (a fen). I can tell you what the residents of the area thought about it. They thought it was insane! and that agitators who had never set foot in our county—big city types—had imposed their will over the will of the citizens who would have benefitted tremendously from the highway to link this economically challenged area with South Bend without traveling on a two-lane road.

This is an interesting and thought-provoking page. I enjoyed it.

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