Snail Darter and Tellico Dam Essay

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In the 1970s the Tellico Dam and the snail darter became the center of a legal battle that drew national attention. The Tellico Dam is located in Loudon County, Tennessee. It is an impoundment dam holding water for downstream use and does not produce electricity. It impounds the Tellico Reservoir on the Little Tennessee River, a tributary of the Tennessee River. The Tellico Reservoir flooded the Cherokee town sites of Chota, Tenasi (whose name was anglicized into the word Tennessee), and Tuskegee.

Many of the thousands of dams in America were built by federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, or the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The Tellico Dam was built by the TVA, but was blocked from final development for several years by litigation. Litigation to block the building of the lake was based on the Endangered Species Act of 1973. When the law was passed, Congress expected that the law would protect bears, buffalos, endangered birds, or large animals. Nothing in the legislative history of the act suggested that it would apply to a tiny, obscure fish.

The snail darter (Percina tanasi) is a small perchlike freshwater fish. There are approximately 130 known species of darter that are native to North American streams. Some kinds are widespread, and others limited to a single stream. Several types of snail darter are native to the rivers and streams of eastern Tennessee. They grow to around 3.5 inches long (about nine centimeters) and feed on aquatic snails in clean gravel beds. Snail darters were first discovered on August 12, 1973, in the Little Tennessee by David Etnier, then an ichthyologist at the University of Tennessee in nearby Knoxville. At the time of the discovery he was doing research in connection with a lawsuit under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The fish was previously unknown in the area. At that time it was thought the snail darter only occurred in the Little Tennessee, which was about to be dammed. It was feared that this would cause its extinction. The snail darter soon became one of the most famous fish in America, because in January 1975, the Secretary of the Interior listed the tiny snail darter as an endangered species.

A suit was filed against the TVA by Hiram G. Hill, Jr. The basis of the suit was the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The Federal District Court took the case and eventually ruled against the TVA that the dam threatened the existence of the snail darter. The U.S. Supreme Court in Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hiram G. Hill, 437 U.S. (1978) decided that the District Court’s decision to bar the dam from closing its doors and flooding the Little Tennessee, even at the cost of millions of dollars, was the proper interpretation of the Endangered Species Act. Eventually, the TVA successfully introduced the snail darter into the nearby Hiwassee (Hiawassee) River. The snail darter was later found in several other Tennessee streams, and in 1979 Congress exempted the Little Tennessee and the snail darter from the Endangered Species Act.


  1. Robert K. Davis, Tellico Dam and Reservoir: A Report (The Office, 1979);
  2. Shannon C. Petersen, Acting for Endangered Species: The Statutory Ark (University of Kansas Press, 2002);
  3. Jim Thompson, Tellico Dam and the Snail Darter (Spectrum Communications, 1991);
  4. William Wheeler and Michael J. McDonald, TVA and the Tellico Dam, 1936-1979: A Bureaucratic Crisis in Post-Industrial America (University of Tennessee Press, 1984).

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