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Giant worm does not warrant federal protection

This  University of Idaho photo shows part of a giant Palouse earthworm, Driloleirus americanus. 
 (File / The Spokesman-Review)
This University of Idaho photo shows part of a giant Palouse earthworm, Driloleirus americanus. (File / The Spokesman-Review)

The giant Palouse earthworm will not be listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act because recent information indicates the worm might be more widespread than previously thought, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said today.

This is the second time the fabled worm has been rejected for endangered species protections.

“We have a lot of questions yet to answer about this species,” said Robyn Thorson, director of the agency’s Pacific Region. “If we don’t know where these animals live and we can’t determine the level and type of threats, we cannot determine whether the protection of the act is required.”

The worm was first described in 1897 as growing up to 3 feet long and that it spit at predators and smelled like a lilly. But recent finds indicate the whitish worm grows to about a foot long and doesn’t spit or smell like lillies.

Still, only a few specimens have been found, and environmental groups for several years have sought federal protections.

The giant Palouse earthworm was once thought to be abundant only in grasslands of the Palouse area. But there are now recent confirmed locations along the east slope of Washington’s Cascade Range, including one in a forested site near Leavenworth. Researchers have also found unconfirmed specimens near Chelan and in a forested location east of Moscow, Idaho.

“We do not know yet whether the giant Palouse earthworm is simply a difficult-to-find species, a naturally rare species, or a species that is rare and at risk from various threats,” Thorson said.

The latest study was prompted by a 2009 petition by the Friends of the Clearwater, Center for Biological Diversity, Palouse Audubon, Palouse Prairie Foundation, and the Palouse Group of the Sierra Club. The groups’ initial petition in 2007 was rejected on the grounds of lack of information about the worm.

Last year, the University of Idaho announced that scientists there had captured the first two living specimens of the worm in two decades. It was only the fifth time the species had been found in the past 100 years. But that was followed by the findings and potential findings of the worm in the other locations.

The worms were considered extinct until 2005, when an Idaho graduate student found a specimen near Albion.