Tiny Fish Makes Big Splash

Photo Credit © Derek Wheaton

On October 4, 2022, the snail darter, Persina tanasi Etnier, was removed from the endangered species list nearly 47 years to the day after being listed October 9, 1975. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and dozens of conservation partners celebrated the snail darter’s recovery and removal from the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife at Seven Islands Birding State Park. The snail darter is the fifth fish species delisted due to recovery in the country and the first in the eastern United States, marking an important milestone in ESA’s success in supporting biodiversity.

“The recovery of the snail darter is a remarkable conservation milestone that tells a story about how controversy and polarization can evolve into cooperation and a big conservation success,” said US Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. “By protecting even the smallest creatures, we show who we are as a country; that we care about our environment and recognize the interconnectedness of our lands, wildlife and people.”  

During the ceremony at Seven Islands Birding State Park, David Etnier, professor emeritus in the UT Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the US Fish and Wildlife Service for the vital role he played in first discovering and then protecting the snail darter. 

“This is a pretty amazing story that shows the interaction of describing a new species, conservation, the US Endangered Species Act, the US Supreme Court, economics, and natural history, with important local connections,” wrote Brain O’Meara, professor of ecology. “We should all thank Dr. David Etnier for his key contributions here and throughout his career.”

The Snail Darter Story

Republished from Volopedia article by Betsey B. Creekmore

In 1973 Professor David Etnier of the UT Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department discovered a previously unreported Tennessee fish, Percina tanasi—a species of darter that is a bottom-dwelling, current-loving perch—in the Little Tennessee River. In 1974 TVA’s Tellico Dam project threatened to eradicate the 12 miles of river that was the fish’s only known spawning ground. A suit to halt construction on the dam was filed in federal district court by Hank Hill, UT law student; Zyg Plater, UT professor of law; and Don Cohen, assistant dean of the College of Law.

TVA claimed that construction of the reservoir did not violate the Endangered Species Act, that clear-cutting of trees along the riverbanks was not detrimental to the fish’s habitat, and that the fish probably had a much wider range than had been found. TVA v. Hill made it to the United States Supreme Court in 1978, with the court making a precedent-setting ruling in favor of the Endangered Species Act by ruling in favor of the plaintiff  and forbidding the completion of the dam.

Shortly after the environmental victory, Senator Howard Baker Jr. spearheaded the introduction by Tennessee members of Congress of a rider to a large appropriations bill that exempted Tellico Dam from the federal act. President Jimmy Carter let the bill pass, and the Tellico floodgates were closed to form Tellico Lake in 1979.

Both TVA and UT transplanted the tiny fish. The fish was subsequently found by Dr. Etnier in South Chickamauga Creek, 60 miles away. In 1984 the snail darter was upgraded from “endangered” to “threatened.” In 2001, with the snail darter population exceeding one hundred thousand and the fish thriving in the Holston River, the Little Tennessee, the lower French Broad, and even the Fort Loudoun Reservoir, Etnier was able to recommend that the fish be taken off the endangered species list.

News Coverage of Snail Darter Success

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. Read the full story online

A tiny fish once at the center of an Endangered Species Act controversy has been saved from extinction. Read more about the “rare victory for the conservation movement at a time when so many species are disappearing across the planet.

In the Beginning
Controversy Over 3‐Inch Fish Stalls the Mighty T.V.A
Source: NYT Archives

Court: Dam Must Yield to Snail Darter
Source: Washington Post

David Etnier passed away May 17, 2023, in Knoxville, Tennessee. Read more about his life here and share your memories. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation to the Etnier Ichthyological Collection at UT or Conservation Fisheries Inc. (CFI) in Knoxville.