Endangered Species Act Lessons Over 30 Years and the Legacy of the Snail Darter, a Small Fish in a Porkbarrel

Zygmunt Plater, Boston College Law Library


Amidst the remarkable array of federal environmental laws dating from the early 1970s, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 has always been one-of-a-kind — in terms of the ethical territory it carves out in the nation’s jurisprudence, the technical approaches it takes to resource regulation, and the political passions and stratagems it provokes on all sides of the nation’s environmental protection public policy debates. The ESA has been controversial from the start, on its own terms and also as a pragmatic target of opportunity for antiregulatory forces seeking to use it as a wedge issue to roll back environmental protection laws generally. This article presents an overview analysis of the ESA’s first major progression through the judicial system, the case of a little fish against a Tennessee Valley Authority dam, and of the Act’s continuities and changes over the past thirty years. This evolutionary history chronicles the Act’s remarkable role not only as a pioneering statutory foray into the interactions between biology and law, but as an unprecedented player and lightning rod in the nation’s policy and political ecosystems as well.