Court upholds denial of worm protections

Kelly Weaver/University of Idaho via Associated Press In this photo provided by the University of Idaho, an adult giant Palouse earthworm stretches nearly to its full length of 10 to 12 inches in the laboratory at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, April 12. Two living specimens of the fabled giant Palouse earthworm have been captured for the first time in two decades, University of Idaho scientists revealed on April 27.

Environmental groups had sought ESA listing

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

The federal government wasn't mistaken in refusing to consider the giant Palouse earthworm for the list of threatened or endangered species, according to an appellate court ruling.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has found the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was justified in its decision not to review further the rare worm's prospects for Endangered Species Act protection.

Several environmental groups had filed suit against the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008 after the agency found there wasn't enough evidence to show the worm may be threatened or endangered.

A federal judge dismissed the complaint last year, but environmental groups appealed the ruling.

Not much is known about the worm's population, but that doesn't mean the government should abandon efforts to learn more, said John Buse, an attorney for the plaintiffs, during oral arguments in February.

"If it waits for the perfect information, or for better information, it may be too late to save the species," he said.

Before a species is granted federal protection, it must first undergo several phases of study. The first stage -- known as the 90-day finding -- determines if inclusion on the list "may be warranted" for the species.

Environmental groups claimed the Fish and Wildlife Service set the bar too high for the earthworm during this preliminary phase, but the federal appeals court decided the agency used the correct standard.

"Evidence regarding the population of the giant Palouse earthworm is limited and inconclusive," according to the court's June 14 order. "The petition failed to identify a single well-designed study determining the current or historical population and range of the earthworm."

The earthworm, which grows to about three feet in length, is difficult to study because it burrows about 15 feet below the ground.

In their petition, environmental groups claimed that conversion to agriculture has degraded the species' grassland habitat.

Last spring, University of Idaho scientists found several giant earthworms, including three cocoons, near Moscow, Idaho.

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