Do a Google query on the phrase “snail darter tiny fish” and the popular Internet search engine returns more than 21,000 entries.
That wouldn’t surprise Cecil Andrus. Three decades ago when he was serving as Secretary of the Department of Interior, Andrus made a wry observation about the tale of the 2 and a half inch long perch that nearly stopped a federal dam project on the Little Tennessee River. It was, he said, “the only fish story I know of where the fish keeps getting smaller.”
The snail darter shrank in the telling because depicting it as a very small and insignificant fish standing in the way of the large Tellico Dam and reservoir project fit the prevailing story line of the first big battle under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Dam opponents used the new species law and discovery of the darter as a cudgel in their ultimately heartbreaking drive to save the southeast’s premier trout fishery and a verdant valley that supported 300 family farms and contained important Cherokee archaeological sites.
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