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For Immediate Release, January 24, 2008

Contacts:

Noah Greenwald, Center for Biological Diversity, (503) 283-5474
Steve Paulson, Friends of the Clearwater, (208) 476-7688, suemagoo@orofino-id.com
O. Lynne Nelson, Friends of the Clearwater, (509) 335-0789
Will Boyd, Palouse Audubon, (208) 882-9755 foc@friendsoftheclearwater.org

Conservation Groups File Suit to Obtain Protection for
Rare Three-Foot Long Spitting Earthworm

SPOKANE, Wash.— The Center for Biological Diversity, Palouse Prairie Foundation, Palouse Audubon, Friends of the Clearwater, and individuals Steve Paulson and Lynne Nelson filed today to overturn a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the giant Palouse earthworm (Driloleirus americanus) does not warrant protection as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.

“The giant Palouse earthworm is extremely rare and faces substantial risk of extinction,” said Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Denial of protection for the earthworm is all too typical of the Bush administration, which has protected the fewest number of species under the Endangered Species Act of any administration since the law was passed.” To date, the Bush administration has protected only 58 species, compared to 522 under Clinton and 231 under the first Bush president.

On October 9, 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a 90-day finding denying that the groups’ petition contained enough information to warrant any protection for the giant Palouse earthworm. Steve Paulson, a board member of Friends of the Clearwater, said: “This is absurd! This is the same agency that told me that our petition contained more data on this earthworm than any other source. They are playing political games at the giant Palouse earthworm’s expense, and we are spitting mad.”

The negative finding was released nine months late by the agency, and only after the groups and individuals who wrote the petition filed a notice of their intent to sue to force the decision. The petition was filed in August of 2006.

In 1897, the giant Palouse earthworm was described as “very abundant.” Today, however, sightings of the species are few and far between. The only recent confirmed worm sighting was made on May 27, 2005 by a University of Idaho researcher. Before that, the giant worm had not been spotted in 17 years, since 1988. Surveys at 46 Palouse sites in 2002 failed to document one individual giant earthworm. But despite the animal’s rarity, there is still hope that with protection under the Endangered Species Act it can be saved.

“The giant Palouse earthworm and the Palouse habitats that it depends on are on the edge of extinction and will be lost forever if we don’t act soon,” said Paulson. “The earthworm needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act to survive.”

The giant Palouse earthworm belongs to a group of earthworms, called Anecic, which are the largest and longest-lived earthworms. The giant Palouse earthworm was reported to attain a length of three feet, to have a peculiar flowery smell (Driloleirus is Latin for “lily-like worm”), and to be cream-colored or pinkish-white. It lived in permanent burrows as deep as 15 feet and has been reported to spit at attackers and move quickly through the soil to escape predators.

“This worm is the stuff that legends and fairytales are made of. A pity we’re losing it,” said Paulson.

The species lives in the increasingly rare native habitats of the Palouse region of southeastern Washington and west-central Idaho. These habitats have been decimated by a combination of agricultural and suburban development, invasive species, disease, and pesticide pollution. Today, less than one percent of native Palouse prairie remains, endangering the earthworm and many other species. Scientists consider the Palouse prairie to be one of the most imperiled ecosystems in the United States.

“The native Palouse ecosystem is precious. It represents beauty, heritage, wildlife habitat, drinking water and a clean, simple quality of life; yet this ecosystem is one of the rarest on earth. Listing the giant Palouse earthworm may be the only salvation for the Palouse prairie,” said O. Lynne Nelson, who helped write the petition to protect the worm.

“If there is one point that I think people should know, beyond the fact that the administration is genuinely hostile to protecting our wildlife and wild lands, it is that the agency is creating an expensive situation for the people who value these native wildlife and ecosystems, and an expensive situation for the creatures themselves. Extinction is forever and we have no time to spare,” added Paulson.

More information about the giant Palouse earthworm can be found at http://palouseprairie.org/invertebrates/palouseworm.html.


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