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SAVING THE GIANT PALOUSE EARTHWORM

Once declared by Aristotle to be “the intestines of the earth,” earthworms have been recognized for centuries as essential to the health of our planet’s soil. But one of the most interesting earthworms of all — the giant Palouse earthworm, native to the Palouse prairie grassland — is literally being ousted from its home turf by modern agriculture and other human activities. Though this unique ecosystem once teemed with underground life, today a baffling 99.99 percent of the Palouse prairie has been dug up, disturbed, eroded and polluted by farming, development and pesticides. Numerous species dependent on the prairie have experienced dramatic population declines, and many plants are thought to have disappeared from the region altogether.

Determined to prevent the giant Palouse earthworm from falling to the same fate, the Center and our allies have worked hard to protect it under the Endangered Species Act. In 2006, a coalition of individuals and conservation groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the species as endangered, but the Service failed to respond until October 2007, after the petitioning groups — joined and led by the Center — filed a notice of intent to sue. The Service, however, rejected the petition based on lack on information. This finding was made despite the fact that earthworm has been found a mere three times in the past 40 years and there are well-known threats to its habitat. 

In January 2008, we and our allies sued the Service, but about a year later a judge ruled against the earthworm, essentially agreeing with the Service in suggesting that there wasn’t enough data on the species, its historic range, or activities that threaten it to warrant listing. But we persevered, unearthed more data, and petitioned again for the worm the next year — and in summer 2010, the Service reversed its former decision, announcing the species may warrant federal protection. We then officially warned we’d sue again over the Service’s foot-dragging on its final decision.

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KEY DOCUMENTS
2009 court ruling
2007 notice of intent to sue

2007 federal 90-day finding denying endangered status
2006 federal listing petition

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RELATED ISSUES
The Endangered Species Act

Contact: Noah Greenwald

Photo courtesy of University of Idaho