July 19, 2010 in Idaho

Palouse earthworm gets second look for protection

Associated Press
Associated Press photo

In this April 12 photo provided by the University of Idaho, an adult giant Palouse earthworm is 10 to 12 inches long.
(Full-size photo)

Already rejected once for endangered species protection, the giant Palouse earthworm has won a new study from the federal government after the first living specimens in decades were found.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said today it had agreed to take another look at whether the rare earthworm deserves protection as an endangered species. The agency acted on a new petition from several environmental groups, whose initial petition was rejected in 2007 by a Bush administration finding that there wasn’t enough information to conclude the worm needs protection. That decision was upheld in a June appeals court ruling.

“Given that it has wasted four years since our first petition, we hope the Fish and Wildlife Service will move quickly to protect the earthworm and its increasingly rare prairie habitat,” said Noah Greenwald, spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland, Ore., one of the petitioners.

The new petition was actually filed last year. But the case may be bolstered by the April announcement by University of Idaho officials that they had captured the first living specimens of the worm in two decades. The discovery appeared to dispel old reports that the worms spit and smell like lilies and were 3 feet long. The new specimens were no more than 12 inches fully extended.

The Palouse region on the Washington-Idaho border is a major wheat production center, and farmers have kept a wary eye on the issue, fearing their practices might be impacted if the worm wins protection.

“We thought that this was a done deal,” said Scott Yates, a spokesman for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers in Spokane.

They had considered the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision earlier this year in the original petition the final word, Yates said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said it now believes there is sufficient scientific or commercial information indicating that listing the worm as threatened or endangered may be warranted, based on additional study.

The two living specimens discovered this spring near Moscow, Idaho, were only the fifth time the species has been found in the past 100 years.

The giant Palouse earthworm has fascinated scientists for decades after long being written off as an extinct creature. It was first reported to the scientific world in 1897.

The worms were considered extinct until 2005, when an Idaho graduate student found a specimen near Albion. But that worm had been cut nearly in half as she was digging a hole.

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