If the giant Palouse earthworm went extinct tomorrow, probably not many people would shed a tear. A massive earthworm, after all, is not cute, furry, or iconic of some larger cause.
The Palouse earthworm is, however, extremely rare. And according to environmental advocates, the slimy creature is getting the shaft from federal regulators when it comes to protection.
Today the United State Fish and Wildlife Service released a finding that denied a petition to list the Palouse earthworm as an endangered species. The reason for the finding was listed as a need for "more information" on the worm.
"We have a lot of questions yet to answer about this species," said Robyn Thorson, director of the [USFWS] 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."
That makes twice now that a petition has been filed to list the massive, pale worm as an endangered species, and twice that a petition has been denied.
Gary Macfarlane, ecosystem defense director for Friends of the Clearwater, the group that filed the latest petition, says the USFWS' excuse that they need more info on the worm is a cop-out. "We're disappointed, but we've come to expect this from Fish and Wildlife, regardless of who's in the White House," Macfarlane tells Seattle Weekly today. "They're saying 'We don't know enough about the worm,' but they're just punting."
Macfarlane notes that there are only one or two captive Palouse earthworms that he knows of.
He also notes that the Palouse Prairie in southeastern Washington and north central Idaho, where the worms are found, is one of the most environmentally compromised ecosystems in the country, thanks to the huge amount of farming that goes on there.
As for whether the fact that the worm is, well, a worm, and not a cute, cuddly panda or majestic eagle, played any part in the decision to deny the animal protections, Macfarlane says "It cant help but play a role."
He says the group's lawyers are in the process of reviewing the USFWS' ruling, and will be responding as soon as possible.
UPDATE: Jodi Johnson-Maynard, assistant professor of soil and water quality with the University of Idaho, and perhaps the country's premier expert on the Palouse earthworm, tells Seattle Weekly that while it's unfortunate the worm didn't get endangered-species protections, she can understand USFWS' argument. "I think there are some definite gaps in information," she says. "For example we're still a little unclear on the exact range of the species. It's difficult to find, that's for sure. We had a three-year project where we sampled five areas and we only found one native earthworm at one site. So yes, it's probably there in very low numbers, or it's just very difficult to sample."
"I think there are some definite gaps in information," she says. "For example we're still a little unclear on the exact range of the species. It's difficult to find, that's for sure. We had a three-year project where we sampled five areas and we only found one native earthworm at one site. So yes, it's probably there in very low numbers, or it's just very difficult to sample."