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Tellico Dam

June 15, 1977

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the 1973 Endangered Species Act and stopped construction of the Tellico Dam.

In 1975, Law professor Zygmunt Plater and student Hiram Hill filed the first petition under the Endangered Species Act. They called on the Department of the Interior to list the snail darter as an endangered species. The snail darter is a small fish that lives in the Little Tennessee River below the Tellico dam site.

In 1976, zoologist David Etnier, who discovered the snail darter, joined Platner, Hill and others in filing a lawsuit to stop construction of the dam.

On May 25, 1976, a judge ruled that it was too late to stop the project. The government had already spent $80 million and the dam was almost finished. But the plaintiffs appealed and on June 15, 1977, in the case of Tennessee Valley Authority vs. Hill et al., the Supreme Court ruled to suspend construction. Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in his opinion, “It is clear that Congress intended to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction whatever the cost.”

It was important that such an insignificant species became the test case for the Act. It allowed the argument to proceed without the sort of emotion that would have been raised if some cute or famous species had been the first listed. Though opponents of environmental protection made many jokes about it, the decision over the snail darter made the Supreme Court’s decision completely unambiguous. It doesn’t matter whether people love the animal in question, or even know of it’s existence. Extinction of species is bad and should be avoided.

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