In the history of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) — which President Richard Nixon signed just over 50 years ago on December 28, 1973 — no creature looms larger than the snail darter. As some lawmakers today seek to weaken the law’s promise to avoid human-caused extinctions, the long-ago battle over this little fish points to a more wholistic way to chart the future of biodiversity conservation in the United States.
In a defining test of the new legislation’s power in 1978, a lawsuit seeking to protect the endangered darter’s Little Tennessee River habitat rose all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled resoundingly in favor of the fish, halting the nearly completed Tellico Dam. But this success was fleeting.
Supporters of the dam shaped a public perception of the case as “small obscure fish stops big important project,” creating a narrative of species conservation holding back social and economic progress. Congress inadvertently strengthened this story a few months later when it exempted Tellico from the law and allowed the dam’s completion. Even today, when a species is listed as threatened or endangered, critics are quick to highlight the price tag for its protection.
This wasn’t an accurate way to portray the Tellico fight, and it isn’t the way we should think about the Endangered Species Act more than half a century later.
Snail darters were a small part of a rich landscape. The “Little T” was the last stretch of free-flowing river in the region, supporting a blue-ribbon fishery and marking a popular recreation destination. It flowed through a valley with fertile topsoil 20 feet deep. The Tellico Dam was a classic pork-barrel project, and the grandiose rural development the dam was supposed to facilitate never materialized. Completion of the dam drowned the site of the Cherokee’s sacred city of Chota, threw more than 300 families off their productive farms, and made the swift-running, clear stream and its creatures merely a memory. Cynics sneered at the idea of slowing progress to protect a small fish that few had ever heard of, but in the end the local community and the country lost a host of precious and valuable resources.
In the years since the snail darter saga, ESA protections have produced marquee accomplishments in restoring individual species such as bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and American alligators, all of which once faced extinction but are numerous today. Black-footed ferrets and California condors – the largest birds in North America – were extinct in the wild, but today they once again hunt prairie dogs and soar through western skies thanks to ESA recovery programs.
But the Act’s most far-reaching accomplishments to date, and its continuing potential as a conservation tool for a climate-challenged future, lie in its power to protect not just species but landscapes and the services they provide to everyone. In the Act’s very first section, Congress emphasized that the law should protect the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend. History has shown this to be a wise policy, though it remains the underappreciated and sometimes underused heart of the Act.
In the 1980s, listing of northern spotted owls as threatened initially led to wrenching debates about “owls versus jobs.” But the recovery strategy ultimately devised for the owl – which included provisions for some continued timber harvests – stands as the country’s most successful ecosystem management plan. The habitats it protects shelter close to a thousand species, and the plan has measurably improved watershed function throughout the Northwest. And though this ecosystem-based strategy was designed before widespread concern about climate change, the old and mature forests protected by the plan sequester huge amounts of carbon and are more resilient in the face of drier conditions and increased wildfire risk.
Sometimes endangered species can themselves do the work of restoring ecosystem function. Scientists have extensively documented the ecological benefits of reintroducing wolves in Yellowstone National Park. This thinned and scattered elk herds, increased native plants and animals along streams, improved water quality and quantity, and by removing the weakest individuals even led to more resilient elk. “Rewilding” other areas to provide similar benefits is one of the most exciting and active areas of conservation today, driven in significant part by the ESA.
The statute has also increasingly provided a means to vindicate the rights of Indigenous communities. In California, as part of an effort to restore endangered salmon in the Klamath River, tribes helped broker the largest dam removal project in the nation’s history. Similar efforts are underway in the Columbia River basin, where federal dams have gutted tribes’ treaty-guaranteed rights to fish. Using the ESA as a legal tool to restore endangered salmon runs, the tribes are poised to lead the way on development of renewable energy to replace the hydropower that would be lost by breaching salmon-killing dams in the Snake River. And Indigenous communities of the Fort Belknap Reservation have reintroduced black-footed ferrets as part of restoring a suite of native prairie species such as bison and grassland plants and birds.
Finally, actions to benefit endangered and threated species can directly improve human health. A recent ground-breaking settlement of an ESA lawsuit will speed steps to reduce pesticides and herbicides across the country. We’ll enjoy more monarch butterflies and rusty-patch bumblebees, while consuming fewer harmful chemicals in our own food and water.
December 1973, when senators unanimously passed the Endangered Species Act, was an era very different than our own polarized environmental politics. Today, many politicians attack the Act as a drag on economic progress that has not moved quickly enough to remove individual species from its protected rolls. But looking at the ESA through the lens of protecting single species was wrong for snail darters then and it’s wrong for us today. The ESA has produced remarkable success in fulfilling its purpose of protecting and restoring the ecosystems that all creatures, including humans, depend on. This track record should generate the consensus we need to strengthen the law and its implementation looking forward to the next half-century.
Editor’s note: Daniel J. Rohlf is on the faculty at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, and is a Member Scholar at the Center for Progressive Reform. Professor Zygmunt Plater taught for many years at Boston College Law School and successfully argued TVA v. Hill before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978.