Into the Wormhole

Fifteen feet below the windswept Palouse prairie of eastern
Washington and western Idaho, a spitting, three-foot-long, white
worm that smells like lilies is thought to live. The fate of the
once common, native, giant Palouse earthworm (Driloleirus
americanus
) is today a mystery. Experts conjecture on its
habits, its role within the ecosystem, and why it has been spotted
only twice in the past 25 years, most recently in 2005. Meanwhile,
environmentalists are rallying to the cause of this little-seen,
little-understood worm, and hoping that by saving it, they can save
the Northwestern prairie where it makes its home.

According to the Associated Press,
the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and
three other environmental groups have filed a notice of intent
to sue the US Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming that the
federal agency — following a familiar pattern of foot-dragging
on endangered species — has missed legally mandated deadlines
to respond to a petition filed to protect the worm in August
2006. (The US Fish and Wildlife Service tells the Associated
Press
that the year-old petition remains under review and
the agency has yet to draw any conclusions on the matter.)

For their part, local academics are still trying to pinpoint why
the worm has all but disappeared. ‘It’s very difficult to say
whether it came from agriculture or [non-native] earthworms,’ Jodi
Johnson-Maynard, assistant professor of soil and water quality at
the University of Idaho tells Utne.com. They’re also
trying to understand what exactly the worm means to the landscape.
‘The overwhelming reality is that we know very little,’ says James
B. Johnson, who heads the department of plant, soil and
entomological sciences at the University of Idaho and last saw one
of the worms in 1986. ‘There’s no way to estimate its ecological
value.’

Environmentalists argue, however, that protecting the worm is a
much-needed step toward protecting the worm’s habitat — the native
Palouse grasslands they say have been devastated by agriculture,
pesticides, suburban development, and invasive species.
According to the University of Idaho’s
Argonaut
, less than 1 percent of the arid grassland
remains untouched by development. ‘Listing the giant Palouse
earthworm,’ says O. Lynne Nelson from Friends of the Clearwater,
one of the groups planning the lawsuit, ‘may be the only salvation
for the Palouse prairie.’

Go there >>
Suit is Filed to Protect Giant Palouse
Worm

Go there, too >>
Lawsuit to Seek Endangered Species Protection
for a Three-Foot Long, Spitting Worm

And there >>
Giant Earthworm May Wiggle onto Endangered
List

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