Five years after it carried its battle for life all the way to the Supreme Court, the celebrated snail darter is about to be bumped off the federal endangered species list.
In one of those delicious counterpoints to history, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it has found too many snail darters swimming around the Tennessee River Valley to justify a spot on the elite list of the nearly extinct.
Threatened, maybe. Endangered, no.
The snail darter is the tiny fish that single-finnedly held up the Tennessee Valley Authority's mighty Tellico Dam for more than two years when it appeared that the dam would flood a section of the Little Tennessee River that was the snail darter's only habitat.
The delay cost a lot of money and spurred an intensive (and, at the time, fruitless) search for more snail darters.
The nation's highest court eventually sided with the fish, and Congress stepped in and granted the Tellico project a blanket exemption from the law.
But a year later, biologists discovered snail darters living happily elsewhere. And elsewhere. And elsewhere.
"I'm sure they were there all the time, but we didn't find them," said Marshall Jones, a Fish and Wildlife official in Atlanta. "It was quite a surprise when they were discovered in some other streams."
In a recent Federal Register notice, the service said it had found five thriving communities of snail darters in Tennessee, including a group of fish that officials transplanted from the Little Tennessee to the Hiwassee River in a last-ditch effort to counter the Tellico damage.
"With all the information we have now, we could reclassify the fish as threatened," a change in status that would still afford the little fish considerable protection, Jones said.
But if another round of surveys this summer finds at least two more strong populations, he said, the snail darter may be left to fend for itself.