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Kayaks on water.

Back From the Brink

TVA and Partners Protect Rare Species and Habitats

Around the world, rare plants and animals edge toward extinction.

Without human help, they’re gone.

Enter the Tennessee Valley Authority and its scientists and specialists.

As the nation’s largest public power company, TVA is a major land manager in the Southeast, a biodiversity hotspot. That makes the enterprise a leading entity in the protection of plants and animals throughout the Valley region.

For decades, TVA has worked with key partners in the region to meet or exceed expectations set out in federal laws that protect habitats and the species that call them home.

“You feel a weight to extinction – mentally, psychologically, emotionally,” Todd Amacker, TVA aquatic zoologist said.

At a public panel hosted by Conservation Fisheries Incorporated, Amacker swept a hand across pictures of rivers, fish and mussels TVA and its partners have worked for decades to protect.

“It’s important to take that emotion and act on it,” he said.

A closeup view of a handful of mussels

Work to restore mussels took time, funding, collaboration and experimentation. And above all, a lot of work.

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How can people act to stop extinction?

“We don't do this alone,” Shannon O’Quinn, TVA senior water resource specialist, said. “Protecting these species is part of a partnership effort.”

Across the Southeast, TVA collaborates with and provides funding to many state and federal agencies. Tribal nations. Universities. Hatcheries. Museums. Nonprofits. And individual landowners and volunteers.

“We’re that middle piece, connecting partners, connecting projects,” Jon Michael Mollish, TVA fisheries biologist, said.

Since the 1970s, when the environmental movement sparked federal monitoring programs, TVA scientists and their partners have snorkeled, hiked, surveyed, counted, researched and mapped to keep tabs on plants and animals. This lets scientists link habitat changes to animal and plant health and spot trends.

Then they act based on what they see.

“TVA has a stated mission of environmental stewardship,” Adam Dattilo, TVA biodiversity program manager, said. “It’s a core part of what we do.”

Written into TVA’s biodiversity and natural resource plans are on-the-ground actions – fish and mussel propagation, streambank stabilization, prescribed burns, pollinator plantings, cave gating and more.

Finally, TVA and its partners spread the word.

“It's hard to get the community involved if they don't know what's in their backyard,” O’Quinn said.

TVA’s stewardship through outreach programs includes school programs, outdoor classrooms and in-stream education days.

“(All these efforts) let folks see firsthand what they have and … the ways in which we at TVA try to protect it,” Mollish said.

Snail Darter

The snail darter was removed from the endangered species list in 2022. 

Conservation in TVA Waters

Some people know of TVA’s work through the snail darter’s story.

A once-rare fish whose fate the Tellico Dam made even more precarious, the snail darter was one factor that set TVA on a new course of conservation starting in the 1970s.

Following the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and decades of research, TVA implemented its Reservoir Release Improvement Program to restore water flow, temperature and quality.

And the program worked. In 2022, the snail darter successfully swam off the endangered species list.

Today, scientists are writing other aquatic species’ success stories.

Rare mussels such as the Alabama lampmussel.

Rare fish including the sicklefin redhorse.

Lake sturgeon.

Yellowfin madtom.

Boulder darter.

Years of wading in rivers and braving chill winter winds have brought these aquatic species back from the brink.

“It’s incredible,” Amacker said of coordinated Alabama lampmussel recovery efforts. “These hatcheries … that we provide funding to, to propagate and reproduce these rare mussels in captivity – it's a true conservation success story.”

And work to help one animal helps them all.

The Reservoir Release Improvement Program and monitoring through the Index of Biotic Integrity program keep tabs on animals, from the tiniest aquatic insect larvae to the trout fisheries to the lake sturgeon.

“A lot of what we do is high level and not necessarily focused on specific species,” O’Quinn said. “It's focused on improving the habitat and the water quality for watersheds in the Valley, which has an impact on all of these species.”

“From that (monitoring) you can tell a whole lot about what's going on upstream, not just in the river. You can also tie it to land use,” Mollish said.

TVA also works with private landowners to establish riparian buffers and fence cattle out of streams.

“Whether it's how we operate a river system to doing conservation work on the ground, people are working together for a common cause,” O’Quinn, who coordinates Shade Your Stream funding with partners across the Valley, said.

Dattilo and volunteers with Ruth's Golden Aster

A TVA team member guides volunteers over river rocks near Ruth’s golden aster. The plant grows in rock crevices along short sections of the Hiwassee and Ocoee rivers in East Tennessee.

Environment and Energy

Tucked into rocks along the rivers and growing in grasslands across the region, rare plants need TVA’s help, too.

“Extinction is the most extreme example of a species that’s on the brink,” said Dattilo, a botanist by training.

But other species are at risk, too – 550 threatened or endangered plant species occur on TVA’s transmission line rights of way alone.

For about 14 years, Dattilo and his team have studied the endangered Ruth’s golden aster, a plant that grows only in rock crevices along short sections of the Hiwassee and Ocoee rivers in East Tennessee.

In collaboration with the University of Tennessee, they’ve surveyed the plant’s population, studied its genetics and experimented with how to help it seed.

“All of this is to think about worst-case scenario: What do we do if populations appear to be declining?” Dattilo said.

The biodiversity team is also studying how dam releases may affect the flower – for example, by carrying soil and refilling rock crevices where plants root.

“This helps us be better stewards of the environment and manage our goals of energy production and environmental protection at the same time,” Dattilo said. “It's a constant balance.”

A successful balancing act happens in grassland ecosystems that flourish alongside another type of TVA infrastructure – open, sunny transmission line rights of way.

TVA botanist David Mitchell and his crew monitor and flag populations of endangered species before rights-of-way teams conduct vegetation management. The rights of way offer habitat for native plants, such as the endangered white-fringed orchid, and for animals like the frosted elfin and monarch butterflies.

TVA biologists and data analysts have worked together on an award-winning monarch butterfly habitat model to increase this habitat.

TVA often plants fields of native grass and pollinator gardens around its buildings and power generation sites. The enterprise also collaborates with partners to restore river cane and conduct prescribed burns on grasslands.

“Together, the most important things that we do are related to managing the river system and the transmission line rights of way,” Dattilo said. “That’s where we are physically interacting with … threatened and endangered species regularly.”

A small bat hibernates inside a cave

A bat hibernates in a cave near Norris Dam. Each winter, TVA zoologists visit area caves to survey the bat population and study the health of these protected animals.

Bats, Birds and More

TVA biologists and zoologists keep tabs on the land – on forests and shores that are home to rare, threatened and endangered birds, bats, salamanders and other creatures.

Guided by endangered species laws, executive orders on bald eagles and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, TVA crews work alongside U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and others to monitor species, TVA biologist Jesse Troxler said.

TVA’s environment and natural resources groups work with the Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies that manage species.

The coordinated efforts include monitoring for salamanders and counting endangered bats flying in the summer and hibernating in caves each winter. TVA builds artificial roost structures for bats and iron gates to protect cave habitats.

And they ensure reservoirs and their drawn-down mudflat shores provide good habitat for bird species that state and federal wildlife officials manage. That includes migrating sandhill cranes, which rebounded from the brink of extinction, and rare visitors such as the Ancient murrelet.

Sandhill cranes

TVA collaborates with state and federal agencies to manage habitats for sandhill cranes. This work has helped the once-rare, majestic bird flourish at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge and other sites in the region.

Challenges Bring Opportunities

With so many plant and animal species at stake, TVA and its conservation partners face plenty of challenges – but the future is bright.

Ongoing monitoring provides excellent data for coordinated action regionwide, and TVA is specially positioned to help conservation projects throughout the Valley region.

“TVA has resources that other agencies often don't, from a technological standpoint, an expertise standpoint in-house, and also really from a financial standpoint,” Dattilo said. “That’s really important.”

“The other thing that we have is flexibility,” O’Quinn said. “We can help fill in gaps where needed.”

“None of this can happen in a vacuum,” Dattilo said. “It’s really about landscape-level biodiversity and conservation.”

Within TVA, groups responsible for energy, facilities, environmental compliance and natural resources land management work together as a safety net for species at risk.

“The days of single actors thinking they can save the world or right the ship are gone,” Dattilo said. “Everyone at TVA plays a role in keeping species from the brink of extinction."

Youth check nest boxes.

A student in the TVA and Zoo Knoxville ZooCrew program inspects a nesting box at Seven Islands State Birding Park. This is one of many TVA-funded programs that teach people about conservation and stewardship of natural resources.

PHOTO AT TOP OF PAGE: TVA scientists use kayaks to explore a section of the Hiwassee River in southeast Tennessee. The area is an ideal habitat for mussels.


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Get Involved

Want to help in the conservation of the Valley region’s plants and animals? There are plenty of ways to do your part – everything from joining a local conservation nonprofit to simply planting a pollinator garden in your own backyard. 

“There are things that everyone can do,” TVA aquatic zoologist Todd Amacker said. “Become involved with a local watershed association. Buy a fishing license. Part of that amount goes to conservation of rare species, whether it’s fish, crayfish, mussels or snails.”

No matter what you do, know that every action can make a difference.

“The approach we need to take moving in the future in the southeastern United States, and across the globe, is one of all hands on deck,” Adam Dattilo, TVA’s biodiversity program manager, said.