[Federal Register: October 9, 2007 (Volume 72, Number 194)]
[Proposed Rules]               
[Page 57273-57276]
From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]



Fish and Wildlife Service

50 CFR Part 17

Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; 90-Day Finding on 
a Petition To List the Giant Palouse Earthworm as Threatened or 

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.

ACTION: Notice of 90-day petition finding.


SUMMARY: We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), announce a 
90-day finding on a petition to list the giant Palouse earthworm 
(Driloleirus americanus) as threatened or endangered under the 
Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended. We find that the petition 
does not provide substantial scientific or commercial information to 
indicate that listing the giant Palouse earthworm may be warranted. 
Therefore, we will not be initiating a status review in response to 
this petition. However, we encourage the public to submit to us any new 
information that becomes available concerning this species.

DATES: The finding announced in this document was made on October 9, 

ADDRESSES: Data and new information concerning the giant Palouse 
earthworm may be submitted to the Supervisor, Upper Columbia Fish and 
Wildlife Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 11103 East Montgomery 
Drive, Spokane, WA 99206. The petition, administrative finding, 
supporting data, and comments received will be available for public 
inspection, by appointment, during normal business hours at the above 

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Susan Martin, Field Supervisor, at the 
above address, by phone at (509) 891-6838, or facsimile at (509) 891-
6748. Please include ``giant Palouse earthworm scientific information'' 
in the subject line for faxes. If you use a telecommunications device 
for the deaf (TDD), call the Federal Information Relay Service (FIRS) 
at 800-877-8339.



    Section 4(b)(3)(A) of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as 
amended (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.) (Act), requires that we make a finding 
on whether a petition to list, delist, or reclassify a species, 
presents substantial scientific or commercial information to indicate 
that the petitioned action may be warranted. To the maximum extent 
practicable, we are to make the finding within 90 days of our receipt 
of the petition, and publish a notice of the finding promptly in the 
Federal Register.
    This finding summarizes the information included in the petition 
and information available to us at the time of the petition review. 
Under section 4(b)(3)(A) of the Act and our regulations in 50 CFR 
424.14(b), our review of a 90-day finding is limited to a determination 
of whether the information in the petition meets the ``substantial 
information'' threshold. Our standard for substantial information 
within the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) with regard to a 90-day 
petition finding is ``that amount of information that would lead a 
reasonable person to believe that the measure proposed in the petition 
may be warranted'' (50 CFR 424.14(b)). If we find that substantial 
information was presented, we are required to promptly commence a 
review of the status of the species.
    We have to satisfy the Act's requirements that we use the best 
available science to make our decisions. However, we do not conduct 
additional research at this point, nor do we subject the petition to 
rigorous critical review. Rather, at the 90-day finding stage, we 
accept the petitioners' sources and characterizations of the 
information, to the extent that they appear based on accepted 
scientific principles (such as citing published and peer-reviewed 
articles, or studies done in accordance with valid methodologies), 
unless we have specific information to the contrary. Our finding 
considers whether the petition states a reasonable case that listing 
may be warranted based on the information presented. Thus, our 90-day 
finding expresses no view as to the ultimate issue of whether the 
species should be listed.
    On August 30, 2006, we received a petition, dated August 18, 2006, 
from a private citizen and five other concerned parties requesting that 
we emergency list the giant Palouse earthworm (Driloleirus americanus) 
as threatened or endangered, and that critical habitat be designated 
concurrently with the listing. The other five concerned parties include 
the Palouse Prairie Foundation, the Palouse Audubon Society, Friends of 
the Clearwater, and two other private citizens (hereafter referred to 
as the petitioners). The petition clearly identified itself as a 
petition and included the requisite identification information for the 
petitioners, as required in 50 CFR 424.14(a). The petition contained 
information on the natural history of the giant Palouse earthworm and 
potential threats to the species. Potential threats discussed in the 
petition include destruction and modification of habitat, disease and 
predation, inadequacy of regulatory mechanisms, and other natural and 
manmade factors, such as invasive and noxious weeds and road-building 
    On October 2, 2006, we notified the petitioners that our initial 
review of the petition for the giant Palouse earthworm concluded that 
an emergency listing was not warranted, and that, due to court orders 
and judicially approved settlement agreements for other listing 
actions, we would not be able to further address the petition to list 
the giant Palouse earthworm at that time. This finding addresses the 

Species Information

    The giant Palouse earthworm was first described by Frank Smith in 
1897 after he discovered it near Pullman, Washington: ``* * * this 
species is very abundant in that region of the country and their 
burrows are sometimes seen extending to a depth of over 15 feet.'' 
Although only a few specimens have been collected, early descriptions 
and collection locations indicated that the giant Palouse earthworm can 
be as long a 3 feet (0.9 meters) and is considered by some an endemic 
that utilizes grassland sites with good soil and native vegetation of 
the Palouse bioregion (James 1995, p. 1; Niwa et al. 2001, p. 34). It 
has been described as an Anecic earthworm, one of three basic earthworm 
types, based on its functional role in the soil ecosystem. Anecic 
earthworms are the largest and longest lived (James 2000, pp. 8-10, 
1995, p. 6). Anecic earthworms uniquely contribute to the soil 
ecosystem by transporting fresh plant material from the soil surface to 
subterranean levels. The deep burrows also aid in water infiltration 
(James 2000, p. 9; Edwards 2004, pp. 30-31).

Population Status

    The petition stated that since the initial description of the giant 
Palouse earthworm, sightings have been extremely infrequent. In 2005, a 
University of Idaho graduate student conducting soil samples was the 
first person in nearly two decades to report

[[Page 57274]]

a sighting of this earthworm (University of Idaho 2006, p. 1). Prior to 
this sighting, two specimens were collected in 1988 by University of 
Idaho researchers studying pill beetles in a forest clearing. A 
specimen was also collected by Fender in 1978 (Fender 1985, pp. 93-
132). An indication of the species' rarity is documented by Fauci and 
Bezdicek (2002, pp. 257-260); they surveyed earthworms at 46 sites in 
the Palouse bioregion without one collection of the giant Palouse 
    As of 1990, three distinct collection sites had been identified: 
Near Moscow, Idaho; near Pullman, Washington; and in the hills west of 
Ellensburg, Washington (Fender and McKey-Fender 1990, p. 358). It 
should be noted that the collection site west of Ellensburg is outside 
of the Palouse bioregion, which casts some doubt on whether the giant 
Palouse earthworm is endemic only to that area. Ellensburg is located 
27 miles (43.5 kilometers) west of the Columbia River, which is the 
western most extent of the Palouse bioregion.
    The petition also states that due to the temperate climate in the 
Palouse bioregion, earthworms are mainly active in autumn and spring. 
Additionally, according to Fender (1995, p. 58), giant Palouse 
earthworms generally form permanent burrows at least 14.7 feet (4.5 
meters) deep and can move very rapidly to escape a shovel. This may 
account for the fact that, in the presence of very limited formal 
studies of native earthworms in the bioregion, there have been only a 
few recorded sightings of the giant Palouse earthworm in the past 107 

Threats Analysis

    Section 4 of the Act and implementing regulations (50 CFR part 
424), set forth procedures for adding species to the Federal Lists of 
Endangered and Threatened species. Under section 4(a)(1) of the Act, we 
may list a species on the basis of any of five factors, as follows: (A) 
The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of 
its habitat or range; (B) overutilization for commercial, recreational, 
scientific, or educational purposes; (C) disease or predation; (D) the 
inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or (E) other natural or 
manmade factors affecting its continued existence. In making this 90-
day finding, we evaluated the petition and its supporting information 
to determine whether substantial scientific or commercial information 
was presented to indicate that listing the giant Palouse earthworm may 
be warranted. Our evaluation of these threats, based on information 
provided in the petition and readily available in our files, is 
presented below.

A. Present or Threatened Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment of 
the Species Habitat or Range

    The petition states that the giant Palouse earthworm is threatened 
by the extensive conversion of native Palouse prairie grassland habitat 
to non-native annual crop production. The petition states that, based 
on historic accounts and very few documented observations of the 
earthworm, it is endemic to this habitat. According to the petition, 
the giant Palouse earthworm is particularly vulnerable to habitat loss 
due to its narrow geographic range. During the past 125 years, the 
Palouse prairie has experienced dramatic conversion of native 
vegetation and habitat, primarily due to agricultural development.
    In general, earthworms are influenced by four environmental 
factors: Moisture, temperature, soil pH, and food resource quality and 
quantity (James 1995, p. 5; 2000, p. 1). It has been stated that 
``agricultural practices replace earthworm functional roles with 
mechanical and chemical inputs, and tend to reduce earthworm 
populations'' (James 1995, p. 12). According to the petition, it is 
believed that the giant Palouse earthworm is likely less tolerant of 
disturbances due to agriculture than its native and non-native 
earthworm counterparts within the bioregion. Because temperature and 
moisture patterns tend to be more extreme for grassland habitat types 
than, for example, forested or shrub land habitat types, it is possible 
that earthworms that are limited to grassland habitat types are more 
vulnerable to site-specific degradation (James 2000, pp. 1-2). 
Agricultural practices that create long periods of bare soil can 
intensify the effect of weather on earthworms, such as during flooding 
and drought conditions (James 2000, p. 2).
    The petition states that soil compaction occurs from the use of 
agricultural machinery, development, and grazing. Soil compaction 
affects the soil food web, soil composition, and functional groups that 
live within the soil ecosystem (Niwa et al. 2001, p. 13). Soil pore 
size is reduced (Niwa 2001, p. 13); favoring exotic earthworms species 
that are more tolerant of course soils than native species (Fender and 
McKey-Fender 1990, pp. 363-364; Edwards et al. 1995, pp. 200-201). 
According to James (2000, p. 6) and others, soil pH is often a limiting 
factor on earthworm distribution; this conclusion is based on studies 
of the best-known European varieties. The petition states that the high 
application rates of ammonium-based nitrogen fertilizer over the past 
40 years in the Palouse bioregion have increased soil pH and reduced 
soil productivity. According to Edwards et al. (1995, p. 202) 
earthworms are very sensitive to ammonia-based fertilizers. Similarly, 
studies have shown that earthworms are susceptible to mortality from 
chemical exposure, including pesticides. Earthworms are particularly 
vulnerable to herbicides that change or destroy the vegetation upon 
which they depend. According to Edwards and Bohlen (1996, p. 283), the 
toxicities of different chemicals and pesticides on earthworms vary 
    The petition did not provide any information that indicated the 
types and amounts of pesticides and herbicides that have been applied 
to farmed lands within the Palouse bioregion. It also provided little 
information indicating the amounts of ammonia-based fertilizer that was 
applied to farmlands in the bioregion.
    Little information is available regarding the population status or 
extent of the giant Palouse earthworm. Although the Palouse prairie 
grassland habitat has been extensively impacted by agriculture, very 
limited information exists on the specific habitat limitations of the 
giant Palouse earthworm or on impacts to it from agricultural 
activities. Most of the information presented in the petition is 
related to other native and exotic earthworm species, and therefore it 
is difficult to draw specific conclusions related to whether any of the 
potential threats raised in the petition affect the giant Palouse 
Suburban Human Development
    The petition states that the Palouse region is currently undergoing 
a surge in high-density housing construction and its associated 
infrastructure. In addition to the footprint of suburban housing 
development and apartment complexes with associated parking lots, 
access roads fragment existing habitat for this species. County roads 
are being upgraded and widened to handle the increase in motorized 
traffic. The petition states that maintaining these vehicular by-ways, 
specifically runoff pollution from them, is often toxic to humans, 
animals, insects and invertebrates. The petition states that the giant 
Palouse earthworm is particularly vulnerable to habitat loss due to its 
narrow geographic range (James 2000, p. 8).

[[Page 57275]]

Summary of Factor A
    We found that a large percent of the Palouse prairie grassland has 
been converted to agriculture. However, one of the rare sightings of 
the species occurred outside the Palouse prairie (in the hills west of 
Ellensburg, Washington), and therefore it is unclear if the species is 
endemic only to that area. Because the extent of the giant Palouse 
earthworm historic range is unknown, we are unable to assess habitat 
loss or the species' reduction in range. We have no data to confirm 
that the species is endemic to the Palouse bioregion. The species may 
be affected by agricultural practices that utilize chemicals and result 
in soil compaction and composition, but we have no data that verify or 
quantify these threats to the species.
    We found very little data, in the petition or in our files, 
directly related to the giant Palouse earthworm indicating the extent 
of any impact to the population across its range, or verifying the 
range of the species. Overall, the petitioners' claim is not supported 
by the information available. Therefore, we find that the petition does 
not present substantial scientific or commercial information that 
present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of the 
species' habitat or range may be a factor threatening the continued 
existence of the giant Palouse earthworm.

B. Over Utilization for Commercial, Recreational, Scientific, or 
Educational Purposes

    The petition states that three of the last few reported individuals 
of this species have been inadvertently killed during research 
activities focused on reporting the rarity of its existence.
Summary of Factor B
    We could find no reliable population size or trend data for the 
giant Palouse earthworm in the petition or in our files that would 
enable us to determine whether the loss of four documented collections 
of the earthworm since 1978 may be a threat to the species' existence. 
Based on our review, the petitioners' claim is not supported by the 
information available. Therefore, we find that the petition does not 
present substantial scientific or commercial information to document 
that over utilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or 
educational purposes may be a factor threatening the continued 
existence of the giant Palouse earthworm.

C. Disease or Predation

    The petition states that the removal of native plants and the 
agricultural practice of leaving cropland bare for long periods of time 
create an environment where native species, such as the giant Palouse 
earthworm, are susceptible to predation by birds (James 1995, p. 11). 
The petition states that pathogens are known to have been transmitted 
to native earthworms by exotic earthworms, either as passive carriers 
or as intermediate hosts (Hendrix and Bohlen 2002, p. 802).
Summary of Factor C
    We could locate no information specific to predation of the giant 
Palouse earthworm or to transmission of pathogens by exotic earthworms, 
in the petition or our files. There was also no population data 
provided that could be used to determine the extent of any threats to 
this earthworm by predation. Therefore, we find that the petition does 
not present substantial scientific or commercial information to 
document that disease or predation may be a factor threatening the 
continued existence of the giant Palouse earthworm.

D. Inadequacy of Existing Regulatory Mechanisms

    The petition states that there are no Federal, state, or local 
regulations that specifically protect the giant Palouse earthworm or 
its habitat. The petition indicates that the Palouse Subbasin 
Management Plan, developed as part of the Northwest Power and 
Conservation Council review process for the subbasins in the Columbia 
River Basin, contains three objectives (7, 8, and 15) that are relevant 
to the giant Palouse earthworm and its habitat. Objective 7 is designed 
to protect native grassland habitat within the Palouse subbasin, 
however there is no indication that this objective would be regulatory 
rather than voluntary in nature, and it does not provide specific 
protection for the giant Palouse earthworm. Objective 8 is designed to 
restore lost or degraded grassland habitat within the Palouse subbasin 
by identifying feasible opportunities for restoration. This objective 
does not define ``feasible opportunities,'' and appears to rely on a 
voluntary approach, which provides no regulatory protection for the 
giant Palouse earthworm. Objective 15 is designed to increase wildlife 
habitat value on agricultural land for focal species; however, it too 
is voluntary in nature and does not provide specific protection for the 
giant Palouse earthworm or its habitat.
    The petition states that the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem 
Management Project (ICBEMP) was initiated to develop an ecosystem-based 
management strategy for managing Federal lands of the Interior Columbia 
River Basin. Earthworms in particular are not mentioned in the 
Environmental Impact Statement or proposed decision (ICBEMP 2003). The 
ICBEMP report does state that, ``An overview of the Palouse subbasin 
wouldn't be complete unless the giant Palouse earthworm was mentioned'' 
(ICBEMP 2003, p.131). However, neither the giant Palouse earthworm nor 
any other native earthworm species is listed as a priority species in 
Washington, even though grassland is considered a priority habitat in 
this bioregion by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
    According to the petition, the regulation of earthworms imported 
into the United States is based on the Federal Plant Pest Act (7 U.S.C. 
150aa-150jj, May 23, 1957, as amended 1968, 1981, 1983, 1988 and 1994), 
under which the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service controls 
imports containing soil that might carry pathogens. The petition cited 
Hendrix and Bohlen (2002, p. 809), who observed that, ``In the absence 
of pathogens, it appears that any earthworm species may be imported, 
that is, there is no specific consideration of earthworms as invasive 
organisms.'' According to the petition, regulation has not been 
effective in reducing the importation of exotic earthworm species to 
the United States from other parts of the world, and the petitioners 
believe that this poses a direct threat to the existence of the giant 
Palouse earthworm and other native earthworm species in the United 
Summary of Factor D
    We found the petition to be correct in that there are no existing 
regulatory mechanisms for the giant Palouse earthworm or for other 
native earthworms. However, we could not determine the existence of any 
threats the earthworm may face, now or in the foreseeable future, due 
to this lack of regulation. So little information exists, about the 
population size, trends, habitat needs, and limiting factors of the 
giant Palouse earthworm, we could not determine if lack of regulations 
may pose a threat to the species. Therefore, we find that the petition 
does not present substantial scientific or commercial information to 
document that lack of regulatory mechanisms may be a factor threatening 
the continued

[[Page 57276]]

existence of the giant Palouse earthworm.

E. Other Natural or Manmade Factors Affecting Its Existence

    The petition states that, in general, native earthworms are 
vulnerable to habitat disturbance and invasion by exotic species (James 
1995, p. 5). According to the petition, invasion of exotic species is a 
twofold threat to the giant Palouse earthworm. First, exotic plants and 
animals degrade native Palouse grassland habitat by reducing the 
beneficial functions native species provide and by performing different 
functions themselves. Second, native earthworm species are displaced by 
exotic earthworm species better able to adapt to a degraded habitat. 
The petition describes non-native plants intentionally and accidentally 
introduced into the Palouse bioregion, including Poa pratensis 
(Kentucky bluegrass), Bromus tectorum (cheatgrass), and Centaurea 
solstitialis (yellow starthistle).
Summary of Factor E
    While data exists on non-native plants within the Palouse 
bioregion, we could find no data provided by the petitioners or in our 
files, that specifically documented potential threats the giant Palouse 
earthworm may face from exotic species. We could not determine whether 
exotic species of earthworms may be a threat to the giant Palouse 
earthworm, because we found no information on numbers or locations of 
exotic earthworms provided by the petitioners or in our files. 
Therefore, we find that the petition does not present substantial 
scientific or commercial information to document that other natural or 
manmade factors may be a factor threatening the continued existence of 
the giant Palouse earthworm.


    We assessed the information in the petition and in our files, and 
found no substantial information indicating that listing the giant 
Palouse earthworm may be warranted. While we share the petitioners' 
concern for the species, we could not determine whether any of the 
potential threats discussed in the petition may pose a risk, now or in 
the foreseeable future, to the continued existence of the species.
    We found little data provided by the petitioner or in our files to 
determine the extent of the historic or current range and distribution 
of the giant Palouse earthworm. At least one collection site is outside 
of the Palouse bioregion (Fender and McKey-Fender 1990, p. 358), 
suggesting that the species may not be endemic to the specific 
bioregion. We agree with the petitioners that the Palouse prairie has 
experienced a dramatic conversion of native habitat to agricultural 
practices; however, information linking the effect this may have had on 
the earthworm is currently nonexistent.
    Information regarding the range, distribution, population size, and 
status of the giant Palouse earthworm is very limited, which curtails 
any assessment of population trends. This limits our ability to assess 
whether the species may be impacted by the threats listed in the 
    We evaluated the petition and the literature cited, and information 
available in our files. Based on our current understanding of the 
species' distribution and population numbers, our analysis, and a 
review of factors affecting the species as presented in the petition, 
we find that the petition does not present substantial information 
demonstrating that listing the giant Palouse earthworm as threatened or 
endangered may be warranted at this time.
    While we will not be initiating a status review in response to the 
petition, we will continue to cooperate with others to monitor the 
species' status, trends, and life history needs, and we encourage 
interested parties to continue to provide us with information that will 
assist with the conservation of the species. Information on the species 
range and distribution, and other information relevant to the species 
status and potential threats would be particularly helpful. Interested 
parties may submit information regarding the giant Palouse earthworm to 
the Field Supervisor, Upper Columbia Fish and Wildlife Office (see 

References Cited

    A complete list of all references cited is available on request 
from the Upper Columbia Fish and Wildlife Office (see ADDRESSES above).


    The primary authors of this document are staff at the Upper 
Columbia Fish and Wildlife Office (see ADDRESSES above).


    The authority for this action is the Endangered Species Act of 
1973, as amended (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.).

    Dated: September 27, 2007.
Kenneth Stansell,
Acting Director, Fish and Wildlife Service.
[FR Doc. E7-19595 Filed 10-5-07; 8:45 am]