Will worms bring woes?
Many fear listing of giant Palouse earthworm would restrict farming
By MATTHEW WEAVER
Washington farmers and ranchers fear the giant Palouse earthworm could become the next spotted owl if it is eventually protected as an endangered species, but a spokesman for the agency studying the elusive annelid advised them not to overreact.
Doug Zimmer, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, advised ag groups to wait for the scientific results before declaring the worm the next spotted owl. It's far more likely not to have an impact, he said.
"Existing agriculture is unlikely to be heavily affected, and if it was we wouldn't know yet what that would be," he said. "If you're plowing a field now, it's highly unlikely you have these things in your plowed field."
The worms have been found so far only in undisturbed soil, he said.
The grain and cattle industries are preparing comments for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ahead of a Sept. 20 deadline.
Washington Grain Commission Director of Communications Scott Yates said members of his organization are concerned about the potential for new buffer requirements and limits on fertilizers, pesticides or tillage.
"We're just concerned about the unknowns of a listing," he said. "Who knew what the spotted owl would do to the timber industry?"
Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association, said a listing could restrict livestock grazing, tillage or related activities in earthworm habitat.
The association is working with the Washington State University Extension Service to find scientific documentation demonstrating the benefits of managed livestock grazing for worms and the soil profile in general.
Comments must be science-based, Field said.
"It isn't enough for me to say as a member of the public I adamantly disagree with this listing," he explained. "I need to be able to say, 'By the way, here is a variety of scientific documentation that backs up the claims I am making.'"
Farming has moved beyond the plowing that could potentially damage the worm and dominated the industry 50 years ago, Yates said. He believes farmers could live in harmony with the species.
"Farmers have nothing against earthworms; farmers love earthworms," he said. "We are big fans of worms, but we don't want our growers to be impacted by an endangered species listing that isn't necessary."
He also finds it puzzling that there has apparently never been an attempt to breed the worm.
"Could we look at other alternatives before we go the route of an endangered species listing?" he said. "Do we always have to go to the most drastic regulation first before we look at some other common-sense approaches?"
University of Idaho associate professor of soil science Jodi Johnson-Maynard has an earthworm in her lab, where she is studying its life cycle and reproduction.
"I feel keeping one in the lab is important because we don't know a lot of basic information," she said.
Breeding the worm is a possibility, she said. Sometimes earthworms require a partner to reproduce, and sometimes they don't.
"That is another question about the species, and maybe something we can answer if we keep this one happy and alive in the laboratory," she said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is in the midst of a 12-month review to determine whether the worm merits listing under the ESA, said Zimmer. It will end next July.
That review follows a 90-day review that determined the earthworm merits more research, Zimmer said.
The agency is approaching scientists and the public to determine what information exists about the worm.
There is very little information to date, Zimmer said. If much information cannot be unearthed during the public comment period, the agency must determine the proper protocol to survey for it.
The University of Idaho's Johnson-Maynard said the worms could burrow deep into the soil. Methods of finding worms include digging and sifting through soil or sending electricity into the ground and causing them to surface.
Researchers are also studying pouring a hot mustard solution into the soil to irritate the worm.
Each method has advantages and disadvantages, Johnson-Maynard said. Researchers are seeking the most efficient protocol.
Johnson-Maynard said it's impossible to compare the current population of the worm to historic densities. A letter written in the 1890s, when the species was first recorded, says the worms were "abundant," which is difficult to measure.
"There's really no way to go back and try to estimate size of the population in the past," she said.
"Just because we made a positive finding on 90 days doesn't mean we're going to make a positive finding on 12 months," Zimmer said. "The standards for 12 months are quite a bit more stringent than 90 days."