KODAK, Tenn. (WATE) — A fish found in East Tennessee has become the first fish species in the eastern United States to be delisted from the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife due to recovery efforts, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday.

The snail darter, a three-inch fish named after its primary food source of tiny river snails, had been a protected species since 1975. Dozens of conservation groups celebrated its removal from the threatened and endangered species list at an event at Seven Islands Birding State Park in Kodak on Tuesday.

Populations of the darter can now be found in several waterways in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. It is the fifth fish species overall to be delisted from the federal list after successful recovery efforts and the first in the eastern United States.

The fish gained fame in the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case of Tennessee Valley Authority vs. Hill. Conservationists sued to stop the Tellico Dam near Lenoir City, from being completed because it would likely lead to the extinction of the snail darter. At the time, the fish’s only known location was the Little Tennessee River where the dam was to be built. The court upheld the newly passed Endangered Species Act.

Construction on the dam was then halted for two years until Congress exempted it from compliance with the conservation law by attaching a rider to an appropriations bill. President Jimmy Carter signed the bill into law in 1979.

“The recovery of the snail darter is a remarkable conservation milestone that tells a story about how controversy and polarization can evolve into cooperation and a big conservation success,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “By protecting even the smallest creatures, we show who we are as a country; that we care about our environment and recognize the interconnectedness of our lands, wildlife and people.”

To establish a new population of the darter, biologists then developed a transplant program. Snail darters were collected from the Little Tennessee River and transplanted into the Hiwassee and Holston rivers and other rivers in the southeast. Survey efforts by the TVA and state partners also located the fish in several additional streams. The transplants were successful and led to the fish being downlisted from endangered to threatened on July 5, 1984.

“Tennessee Valley happens to be one of the most biodiverse places in the entire world. We have to work very hard together in partnership to protect these species. Not only for ourselves, today, but for our kids and their kids. So, we’re really excited when we see a species that was struggling come back from the brink and be as successful as we’re seeing today,” said Rebecca Tolene, vice president of environment TVA.

In 1991, the Department of the Interior said conservation efforts increased as the TVA began implementing strategies to improve habitat and water quality conditions around their dams. These efforts benefitted snail darters across the region.

The fish’s recovery can also be contributed to the Clean Water Act’s major reductions in pollution.

“The recovery of the snail darter shows the success of the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act,” said Jim Williams, the former Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who wrote the original rule protecting the snail darter. “With better management of water releases at hydropower and navigation dams, and removal of a lot of dams that no longer serve their original purpose, we could recover dozens more aquatic species that are still imperiled by decisions from decades ago.”

“As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2023, this little fish is emblematic of what partnerships can do to protect even the most initially controversial species, showing the ultimate importance of the ESA in preserving species for future generations,” said Service Director Martha Williams. “We would like to thank the many partners, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, which made this possible.”

Snail darters are one of more than 50 species of plants and animals that have recovered under federal protection, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, Tennessee purple coneflowers, American alligators and humpback whales.

“Nearly 50 years ago the passage of the Endangered Species Act declared that our country would protect the plants and animals that collectively underlie our survival, well-being and identity,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Now, as we face an escalating global extinction crisis, this landmark law is more important than ever for saving imperiled species, from little darters to blue whales.”

The snail darter’s scientific name is Percina tanasi. Its species name, tanasi, is the origin of the word Tennessee and refers to a former village of the Cherokee Nation near where the darter was discovered.

Throughout the United States, more than 260 species of freshwater fish and mussels are at risk of extinction due to the loss, and degradation of freshwater streams and rivers.