Is Great White Worm endangered?

Environmentalists push again to protect the elusive Northwest critter, assuming it still exists.
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The great white worm of the Palouse. (Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon/University of Idaho) CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE

Environmentalists push again to protect the elusive Northwest critter, assuming it still exists.

The Northwest native Great White Worm of the Palouse country is rarely found. Does that mean it's endangered? I explored that question in story "Is a species endangered if you can't find it?" in 2007. The rarely seen or captured worm was once reported as "abundant" in the rich Palouse topsoil, yet today is almost never seen, and when found, specimens have sometimes been badly damaged.

Environmentalists have renewed their push to have the worm listed as a federally endangered species, and have filed suit to for the issue. The Associated Press reports:

"The giant Palouse earthworm is critically endangered and needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act to have any chance of survival," said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The center filed the lawsuit along with Friends of the Clearwater, Palouse Prairie Foundation, Palouse Audubon, and Palouse Group of Sierra Club.

The worm has been seen only four reported times in the past 110 years, but supporters contend it is still present in the Palouse, a region of about 2 million acres of rolling wheat fields near the Idaho-Washington border south of Spokane.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has previously said too little in known about the species to list it and turned down a previous request. There is no estimate of the number of such worms, no idea about their breeding habits or behavior. Indeed, even their full range is unknown. While they're associated with the rolling Palouse prairies of Washington and Idaho, there are hints that some Great Whites, or close relations, may live as far afield as the eastern Cascades near Leavenworth.

Does their scarcity equate with endangerment? Certainly, no one would now call the species abundant and it is believed that many were wiped out as the native Palouse prairie has been farmed and developed. Very little native prairie, less than 2 percent, remains, and it is thought that this is where surviving Great Whites are living. Endangered status would not only protect worms yet-to-be-found, but it would also help protect their known habitat. The question is, will we come to know them and their brethren before or after it's too late?

Scientists have little to work with and are continuing to search for Great Whites. Lee Matthews, whose property near Leavenworth surprisingly yielded Great White candidates for study, reports that he's been told by researchers that DNA comparisons indicate that they may be Great Whites or a relative, possibly an undescribed Northwest native worm species. Prof. Jodi Johnson-Maynard, worm expert at the University of Idaho, confirms that a worm from Matthews' site was definitely of the same genus as the Great White (Driloleirus) and that its characteristics were consistent with that species (Driloleirus americanus) , but that it couldn't be confirmed for certain because the specimen was damaged.

The hunt for Great Whites will go on.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.