1979: Snail Darter Exemption Case

In the mid-1970s a small fish in Tennessee made national headlines. Water impoundments on the Little Tennessee River behind the nearly completed Tellico dam threatened to eradicate the only known population of the snail darter (a fish related to perch), which was listed as endangered under the ESA.In 1976, the case of Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill was filed in an effort to protect the fish. In 1978, the case reached the Supreme Court. As originally enacted, the ESA contained an absolute prohibition against activities detrimental to listed species. The Supreme Court concluded that the ESA did apply in this case, and the legislation under review (the ESA) indicated beyond doubt that Congress intended endangered species to be afforded the highest of priorities, and mandated that the gates of the dam not be closed

A month after this Supreme Court decision, the ESA was amended by Congress to include a process by which economic impacts could be reviewed and projects exempted from the restrictions that otherwise would apply. In late 1978, an exemption was sought using the new amendment and the Endangered Species Committee. After going through the exemption process, in early 1979 the ESC denied an exemption in the snail darter case; the dam project remained on hold because of the fish.

Then, in late 1979, Tennesse Sen. Howard Baker and Rep. John Duncan Sr., tacked an amendment to the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act, which exempted Tellico from the ESA and other laws. As a result, workers at Tellico closed the gates of the dam, allowing the reservoir to begin filling. In 1984 the Fish and Wildlife Service rescinded the designation of the Tellico dam area as critical habitat for the snail darter, because the species no longer existed in that area. The snail darter classification under the ESA was also later changed from endangered to threatened, because several other small populations of the species were found elsewhere in the Tennessee River Watershed.


USDA Forest Service. “Spotted Owl Background Information.” USDA Forest Service, Public Affairs Office; June 15, 1990.