Is the new spotted owl a worm?

The Feds decided to find out if the Great White worm of the Palouse is endangered or not.
Crosscut archive image.

Great White Worm adult specimen found, alive, on Paradise Ridge, Idaho, in April 2010

The Feds decided to find out if the Great White worm of the Palouse is endangered or not.

The rare Great White worm of the Palouse is getting a second look at whether it's an endangered species or not.

Earlier this month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service agreed to undertake a one-year study to see if it deserves listing on the endangered species list. The worm was turned down in 2007. Worm activists and environmentalists think the Obama administration is less resistant to considering adding new species to the list than the department under the Bush administration. The Fish & Wildlife service says that petitioners have provided new information that warrants the study.

The potential listing of the worm is problematic, and consequential. Little is know about the mysterious native worm species. Earlier this year, rare live worms were recovered, enabling scientists to study them. Little is known about the Great White's population, range and habits. There's even controversy over just how "great" and "white" they are (recent specimens were smaller and pinker than legend). In the late 19th century, the worms were much more common in the rich soils of the Palouse region of southeastern Washington and adjacent Idaho, but cultivation seems to have wiped them out except in remnant sections of the original Palouse prairie. No recent specimens have been found in areas that have been farmed. On the face of it, it seems that they have become rare because of human activity.

But with so little known, it's difficult to define whether or not they are endangered. They could, in fact, be thriving in pockets that have been undiscovered. And those pockets could include far-flung habitat that would make the Palouse moniker inaccurate. Great Whites have been found in the forested hills outside Moscow, Idaho, and as far way as Ellensburg. And possible Great Whites, or close relatives, have been found in the Cascades near Leavenworth.

The survey could help spur research and identification of specimens through DNA and other testing. Finding more worms for study would help, but that can be tricky. Live worm finds are exceedingly uncommon and dead worms don't yield much behavioral information. And too, how many worms do you sacrifice for science if they are, indeed, on the brink of extinction?

But if, as seems true, that great whites and agriculture don't mix, an endangered species designation could prove problematic for farmers, and commercial and residential developers. There are many who don't want to have to contend with an underground version of the spotted owl.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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