U.S. Supreme Court Protects the Snail Darter Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed an appeals court decision protecting a three-inch fish, the snail darter, which had been listed as an endangered species. Despite the Court’s ruling, Howard Baker and other Tennessee lawmakers successfully engineered legislation exempting Tellico Dam from the provisions of the Endangered Species Act, which protected the fish.

Summary of Event

On June 15, 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it was affirming a lower court ruling that protected the snail darter’s existence and habitat, thus bringing construction of the Tellico Dam Tellico Dam in Tennessee to a halt. The battle over the construction of the dam had gone on for more than a decade. Supreme Court, U.S.;endangered species Endangered species;snail darter Snail darters Wildlife conservation [kw]U.S. Supreme Court Protects the Snail Darter (June 15, 1978) [kw]Supreme Court Protects the Snail Darter, U.S. (June 15, 1978) [kw]Court Protects the Snail Darter, U.S. Supreme (June 15, 1978) [kw]Snail Darter, U.S. Supreme Court Protects the (June 15, 1978) Supreme Court, U.S.;endangered species Endangered species;snail darter Snail darters Wildlife conservation [g]North America;June 15, 1978: U.S. Supreme Court Protects the Snail Darter[03280] [g]United States;June 15, 1978: U.S. Supreme Court Protects the Snail Darter[03280] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 15, 1978: U.S. Supreme Court Protects the Snail Darter[03280] [c]Animals and endangered species;June 15, 1978: U.S. Supreme Court Protects the Snail Darter[03280] Etnier, David Plater, Zygmunt Freeman, S. David Baker, Howard

As early as 1936, the Tennessee Valley Authority Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) considered building the Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River, an exceptionally clean, highly oxygenated river that was filled with fish. It was not until 1966, however, that Congress first appropriated funds for construction of the dam. From the start, various groups—including farmers whose land would be destroyed by the reservoir, fishermen and canoeists, and some Cherokee Indians to whom the river was sacred—opposed the dam. These groups, led by law professor Zygmunt Plater, opposed the dam’s construction by invoking various environmental laws.

In 1971, the opponents of the dam succeeded in halting construction until the TVA submitted an acceptable environmental impact statement under the newly enacted National Environmental Policy Act. National Environmental Policy Act (1969) Two years later, just as the TVA produced an acceptable statement and the injunction was lifted, zoologist David Etnier discovered the existence of the snail darter. This three-inch fish, which lived in the shoals of the Little Tennessee River, took its name from the fact that its diet consisted solely of snails. The discovery of the fish coincided with the passage in 1973 of the Endangered Species Act; Endangered Species Act (1973) section 7 of the act prohibited any action that might jeopardize the existence of an endangered species or modify a critical habitat. By November, 1975, the snail darter had been listed as an endangered species, and by 1976, the Little Tennessee River had been designated its critical habitat.

At that point, construction of the dam was 80 percent complete and had cost $78 million. Opponents of the dam brought suit in a federal district court to prohibit the dam’s completion. In the case Hiram G. Hill, Jr., et al. v. Tennessee Valley Authority, the court decided that although completion of the dam and the subsequent creation of a reservoir might destroy the snail darter, a court order requiring that construction cease at such a late date would be unreasonable, given the fact that the project had been under way for seven years before the act was passed. The court dismissed the suit, and the plaintiffs appealed.

The appeals court established two facts in reaching its decision: Completion of the Tellico Dam would violate the Endangered Species Act of 1973 because it would jeopardize the continued existence of the snail darter; and there were no grounds to exempt the dam from the act. The court therefore decided that an injunction on further construction was appropriate. This time, the TVA appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, in Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill. Plater argued the case for the opponents of the dam.

The Supreme Court, in a six-to-three decision, affirmed the appeals court opinion, stating that section 7 of the Endangered Species Act allowed for no exceptions to projects under way when the act was passed, even if, as with the Tellico Dam, a project was nearly completed. Furthermore, the Court decided that in spite of the fact that Congress had appropriated funds for the dam’s completion during the various court proceedings since 1976, this did not mean that Congress intended to repeal the Endangered Species Act; the Court believed that Congress had authorized the funds under the assumption that the act did not apply to the dam’s construction. Finally, the Court stated that by underscoring the importance of the act, the Court was merely upholding the separation of powers as it was required to do by the Constitution: The role of Congress was to enact laws; that of the court to interpret them.

A snail darter.

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

This decision did not guarantee victory for the environmentalists or the snail darter. At the urging of Howard Baker, a senator from Tennessee with presidential aspirations, Congress passed an amendment to the Endangered Species Act that created a committee with the power to exempt certain organizations from the act. Baker and others hoped that this committee would exempt the Tellico Dam. A new obstacle appeared, however, with the appointment of S. David Freeman, who opposed the completion of the dam, as the director of the TVA. When Freeman testified before the committee, he proposed that no reservoir should be created, and on January 23, 1979, to the surprise of many, the committee denied exempt status to the dam. The committee stated what the opponents of the dam had always believed, that the project was ill conceived and uneconomical.

Baker and other Tennessee legislators thereupon raised the issue again in Congress, stating that the snail darter had been successfully transplanted to another river, where no harm would come to the species should the dam be completed. On a quiet afternoon in June, 1979, when few congressmen were present, a rider was attached to an appropriations bill that allowed the Tellico Dam to be finished in spite of any existing law. The bill passed the House of Representatives, and eventually Baker was able to force it through the Senate. Those who voted for it ignored the fact that Congress was doing precisely what the Supreme Court had said it could not do, authorizing funding while repealing one of its own laws by implication. President Jimmy Carter reluctantly signed the bill, and the dam was completed and the valley flooded on November 28, 1979.


Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, one of several environmental court cases during the 1970’s, was perhaps the most notorious and eventually involved the TVA and its changing directorate, environmentalists, Congress, and the courts. The press simplified the complexities of the case by presenting it as a fight between a tiny fish and a mighty dam. This oversimplification notwithstanding, the case left several legacies.

The case strengthened the Endangered Species Act of 1973 by giving it the appearance of more flexibility. The case affirmed that federal agencies could not afford to ignore endangered species. Concurrent with the case passing through the court system, the list of endangered species was growing. By 1978, 228 domestic and 457 foreign endangered species had been included. Amendments added in 1982 strengthened the act still further.

Although the case gave rise to oversimplifications, it revealed how complex an environmental case could be. The resolution of the case involved finding a habitat, an ecosystem, that could provide the fish with the proper environment in which to grow. After this case, the term “ecosystem,” with its implication of delicate balances between life-sustaining and life-threatening forces, became standard in analyzing environmental cases, as for example in the 1990’s controversy involving the northern spotted owl and timberland in the northwestern United States.

Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill also reinforced the doctrine of the separation of powers. The Court went to great lengths to state that laws could not be repealed by implication, as was the case when Congress appropriated funds for a project barred by a preexistent law. When Congress attached a rider to a bill, which stated that the Tellico Dam was to be completed in spite of all existing laws, Congress acted illegally and in circumvention of its own rules. The Court, however, did no more than point out the discrepancy. Subsequently, the Court continued to support the act, and in most instances Congress worked in tandem with the Court’s dictates.

Zygmunt Plater said once that only in the United States could citizens with so little power and so few resources have taken such an issue so far—all the way to a victory in the Supreme Court—only to be crushed in the end by Congress and the TVA. The citizens proved in retrospect to be more accurate and more rational in their criticisms of the dam than the TVA authorities and Congress, for the dam once completed was a developmental debacle. Few developers were interested in it, and at one time it was even suggested that the area be turned into a toxic-waste site.

The snail darter case provided many lessons. Natural, economic, political, social, and even planetary issues had been at stake, but they were overwhelmed by media slogans and politics. The snail darter itself did survive, however, despite the media and politics. Before the valley was flooded, the fish had been moved from the Little Tennessee River to feeder streams of the larger Tennessee River, where it flourished. On August 6, 1984, the Department of the Interior was able to upgrade the condition of the species from endangered to threatened. Supreme Court, U.S.;endangered species Endangered species;snail darter Snail darters Wildlife conservation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lowry, William R. Dam Politics: Restoring America’s Rivers. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2003. A study of American river restoration efforts and the policy changes that are taking place. Presents eight case studies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Plater, Zygmunt J. B. “In the Wake of the Snail Darter: An Environmentalist Law Paradigm and Its Consequences.” University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform 19 (1986): 805-862. Well-written, highly readable overview of the case. Lucid account of the issues and the groups involved and of the simplifications at the time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Reflected in a River: Agency Accountability and the TVA Tellico Dam Case.” Tennessee Law Review 49 (Summer, 1982): 747-787. Account of the case by an opponent to the dam. Includes a discussion of the inner workings of the TVA.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rohm, Kathryn A., ed. Balancing on the Brink of Extinction: The Endangered Species Act and Lessons for the Future. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1991. Twenty-two articles on the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Description of the snail darter case as the turning point.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wheeler, William Bruce, and Michael J. McDonald. TVA and the Tellico Dam, 1936-1979: A Bureaucratic Crisis in Post Industrial America. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986. Comprehensive account of the case with colorful descriptions of all the characters involved.

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Categories: History