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The giant Palouse earthworm can't be found — yet it's dividing the Palouse

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Jodi Johnson-Maynard will tell you this is not a quest. It’s not her personal mission or a scientific crusade. She’s reluctant to call it much of anything, in fact.

Her search for the giant Palouse earthworm is one she conducts with calculated scientific professionalism: She refuses to take sides, she will only comment on facts — the black and white. Not the gray.

What she will firmly tell you is that the giant Palouse earthworm — a pale white worm that can grow three feet long, smells like lilies and spits when aggravated — exists. She’ll also tell you that its numbers are plummeting, that it lives somewhere under the Palouse and that it has only been found four times in the last 100 years.

She just can’t tell you how to find it.

Behind the wheel of her gun-metal blue Honda Pilot, Johnson-Maynard drives like the native Californian she is — fast, braking infrequently — down the gravelly, back roads south of Moscow, Idaho. She flies past a tiny bed and breakfast, a Mr. Cabinet store, a trailer park, in and out of curves and bends, deep into the yellowing waves of the Palouse.

She’s a soil scientist, but during the last nine years that she’s worked at the University of Idaho, she’s become an authority on local worms — particularly, the elusive giant Palouse earthworm. Her interest in the native worm swelled in 2005 when a grad student unexpectedly struck gold.

“She went to this pit and put her shovel in and she pulled one out,” Johnson-Maynard recalls. “It’s like a million in one chance… We, like everyone else at that time, thought it was gone.”

But unearthing that one white worm — now dead and decaying in a test tube that sits on Johnson-Maynard’s desk — has since plowed deep dividing lines through the Palouse.

Local environmental groups started calling for the worm to be listed as endangered in order to save any last living specimens. They argue that the worm is the last surviving link to the original Palouse prairie.

“The worm can’t exist without the prairie and there are some people [who] say the prairie can’t exist without the worm,” Steve Paulson, a board member for Friends of the Clearwater, says. “The initial step to salvaging the whole is to save the parts. We’ve got to salvage the parts of this ecosystem.”

But some local farmers say they’ve never seen the thing and that protecting a worm that can’t be found could drive them out of business, or worse — capsizing the agriculture-based economy of the whole region.

“You’d have a civil war on your hands,” says Andrew Duffin, a Palouse historian.

Perhaps most worrisome, say scientists, is how little we know. What makes this worm different from other species? What happens if it goes extinct? What knowledge of our world would die with it?

“There’s a lot of reasons why it’s bad to lose a species,” says Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “They are a source of information. Who knows, maybe with this earthworm some disease could be cured by some chemical in its body? … It’s a three-foot-long white earthworm that spits and has lily smell to it. It’s an interesting creature.”

“I just have to stay neutral,” Johnson-Maynard says, acknowledging the politics surrounding the worm.

Today, we’re driving to a third-generation farm on Paradise Ridge, just southeast of Moscow, to take advantage of the wet fall weather. She says mid-springtime is best for earthworm hunting, but giant Palouse worms have also been found on fall mornings just like this one.

On a north-facing ridge of the property, Johnson- Maynard stops on the fl attest ground she can find. Karl Umiker, her research support scientist, and Shan Xu, a 25-year-old master’s student from China, help her unload their crude collection materials: shovels, milk jugs, wooden-framed screens, a Coleman cooler (with cup holder top), a heavy orange generator. They awkwardly carry them to what they call Zone Two, a hillside covered in dying sticky geranium, Idaho fescue and buckwheat that is nearly impossible to stand on comfortably.

None of them will say that they are here to find a giant Palouse earthworm. Instead, they say they’re experimenting with sampling techniques — the best ways to effectively tempt worms out of the ground.

“You know it’s one of those things where if you come out trying to catch one, you’d go away disappointed,” Umiker says, looking out over the withering grasses and shrubs.

They didn’t pick this place randomly: the team’s steep collection site is just one of a few slivers of original prairie that still exists. Today, just 1 percent of Palouse prairie is actually pristine — but that’s nothing new.

Duffin — author of Plowed Under: Agriculture and Environment in the Palouse — says that nearly every hill, plain and fi eld here was overturned and developed into farmland by 1900. And scientists like Johnson- Maynard and local environmental groups believe that may be the very reason no one can find the Palouse earthworm.

Duffin says little thought was given to what effect such a drastic turnover might have on the natural landscape of the Palouse or to its biological makeup: the soil and animals native to the area.

“Farmers were in business to do business,” he says. “The farmers didn’t care… They knew exactly what they were doing — they knew they were skinning off the land.”

At the same time farming was taking root, a zoologist named Frank Smith documented giant Palouse earthworms for the first time, describing them as “abundant” in journals he kept, dated 1897.

The foremost authority on Northwest earthworms, William Fender, found two giant Palouse earthworms in 1978. He says that this species is very real, unique and “excruciatingly hard to find.” He believes that’s because their habitat is shrinking.

When it comes to giant worms — particularly the giant Palouse earthworm and the related, much larger Oregon giant earthworm — Johnson-Maynard says Fender is “the only person I know of who can identify [them] to the species level.” Laughing, she says that he has a “unique skill.”

“They are as endangered as anything I’ve had to deal with. I’m quite sure of that,” Fender says. “And the thing is: They don’t have any possible refuge.

“Even the Oregon giant earthworm, which is clearly very rare, has a mix of habitat and little pockets of things here and there — that species has a much better chance. The Palouse worm — all they’ve got is a heavily disturbed habitat. I just think they are in the most precarious position of any Western native earthworm.”

Fender has even returned to sites in Ellensburg, Wash., and Lewiston, Idaho, where he collected the Palouse worms in 1978 in hopes of trying to coax more out of the ground.

“Of the two places that I collected 30 years ago, one of them now has been bulldozed and has a gravel parking lot and a steel shed on it. And one of them is just at a major intersection, tucked back in amongst the trees,” Fender says. “I’ve collected there and I’ve found nothing of interest. I think it’s probably been wiped out there.”

Karl Umiker smiles as he pushes electric probes — long metal rods with plastic screwdriver-like tops — through the crunchy, fading plants into the soil below. He’s hoping to shock the ground with up to 400 volts using this method.

“I don’t have high hopes for this,” he says, still smiling — something he seems to do constantly. “It was shallower than I thought it would be.”

Shan Xu, in throwback Nikes, jeans and a purple plaid raincoat — the rhinestones on her back pockets sparkling in the late morning sun — starts digging a hole. When asked about her soil studies, her answers are fl at. But when the giant Palouse earthworm comes up, she laughs, breaking the scientific stoicism of her colleagues: “It’s really exciting.”

They’re trying three worm-hunting techniques today, all fl awed or experimental in some way: hand sorting soil through screens, applying an active ingredient from hot mustard to the soil, and shocking the soil with enough electricity to get worms to come to the surface.

Johnson-Maynard starts hand-sorting, dumping buckets of soil onto the screens, carefully brushing the brown earth back and forth with her fingertips, almost as if she’s looking for nuggets of gold. The earthworms are scarce today, but when she fi nds an everyday species — a bronze-colored worm curled up in a ball — she’s delicate with it, handing it to Xu to label in a container with soil.

“Earthworm sampling is a little like fishing — you have to be patient,” she says. “It’s like fishing without the beers.”

Later, as Umiker begins running voltage to the electrical probes, Xu calls out hesitantly to him and Johnson-Maynard:

“I found an earthworm?” Johnson-Maynard lets her guard down for a split second: “Is it big?!” Xu holds it out for her to see: just a small, everyday earthworm.

“Mmm. Trapezoides,” Johnson-Maynard says, deflated, turning back to the electric probes.

It’s an invasive earthworm, Aporrectodea trapezoides, an exotic species that outnumbers native worms on the Palouse by a long shot. They’re another reason Johnson-Maynard speculates that she can’t find more giant Palouse worms. Worms like the one Xu found are resilient, can reproduce without a mate, eat almost anything in the soil and can survive drastic temperature changes; essentially, they’re the ultimate competitors.

There are lots of theories about how the Palouse became overrun with exotic species of earthworms like Trapezoides. As people rooted plants from other areas in the soil, they inevitably brought foreign species of worms with them. Another theory speculates that early American settlers used soil as ballast on their ships, dumping it onto the shores upon arrival here. That soil scattered inland. Birds picked up earthworms from it and brought them even further inland. They reproduced rapidly, perhaps out-competing native worms more and more as time passed.

Exotic species present an even greater problem than just competition to the native Palouse worm: they change the entire makeup of the soil.

Fender says worms create channels that aerate and hydrate the soil and, depending on what kind of worm they are, they constantly cycle nutrients through the soil — potentially changing the “soil profile,” including the pH level, which can obliterate native plants.

But today, Johnson-Maynard, Umiker and Xu are less worried about what kind of worm species they gather — just that they collect some. They pull out three adults — none of them giant ones — by hand-sorting. The mustard technique does nothing. The generator that powers the electroshocking system emits a loud, constant purr, but attracts no worms.

“It’s kind of variable. On one dig, you won’t find any — and then one or two feet away, you’ll find some, which is part of the frustrating thing about it,” Johnson-Maynard says, not seeming very frustrated at all.

In Oregon, to aid in their search for Oregon giants, some scientists have argued that dogs could be trained to sniff out the lily-like smell of these worms. Dan Rosenberg, a professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University, credits the idea to his dog, Raven, an Australian Shepherd who pulled a dead 51-inch Oregon giant from under a Himalayan Blackberry bush in Corvallis.

“Up to that date, we knew it was looking for a needle in a haystack,” he says. “If the dog didn’t alert my wife to it, even though she’s aware of the species, she wouldn’t have seen it.

“Most of the findings have just been accidental.”

At a late-October meeting in Moscow, 30 people are passing a test tube around the room. Inside it, the phantasmic giant worm found in 2005 is yellowing with age, its severed sections shriveling over time. It doesn’t look giant, and it hardly looks like much of a worm.The tube isn’t a regal resting place — it’s just a glass vial with one end plugged by a brownish top that’s affixed with a few layers of heavy-duty packing tape. The gathering was organized by the Friends of the Clearwater, the local environmental protection group that recently fi led its second petition with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to list the Palouse earthworm as threatened or endangered.

Each person in the room pauses with the vial, trying to make something out of the mangled thing inside.

Johnson-Maynard stops for a confession. “I wanted to take a minute to address this ‘giant’ thing. I don’t know that we should be calling the giant Palouse earthworm a ‘giant,’” she says, projecting images of 20-foot-long Ecuadorian earthworms onto the screen behind her. “A colleague of mine says we should start calling it the ‘larger-than-average Palouse earthworm.’” The crowd laughs, unfazed by this revelation. Most of them already know the worm isn’t a giant, Beetlejuice-sized sandworm; they just want to know how to find it.

“I’ve had people come to my office who thought for sure they have a giant Palouse earthworm, and they just really have a really big earthworm,” Johnson-Maynard says. “It’s kind of a disappointment for them.”

That hope of finding more Palouse worms is shared by environmental organizations interested in protecting them. But protection isn’t an easy sell. Sarina Jepsen, endangered species program director for the Oregon-based Xerces Society, says that people are quick to rally around cute, cuddly animals like polar bears and penguins, but aren’t so eager to protect species at the bottom of the food chain.

“The charismatic mega-fauna get the lion’s share of attention,” she says. “There are so many insects and invertebrates in need of protection.”

But Dan Wood, director of local affairs for the Washington State Farm Bureau, says he gets concerned when a species like the Palouse worm is protected — especially when it means regulating how farmers can use their own land. Or worse: when an endangered species means farmers can’t use their land at all.

“Every time there’s a listing filed [to protect a species], it’s followed by a discussion of restrictions,” he says. “The state and federal regulatory agencies typically do not seem concerned about maintaining the viability of agricultural lands.”

Wood seems jaded; he says the treatment is always the same when a species gets protected. The Washington State Farm Bureau has seen it before with spotted owls, salmon, gray squirrels, loons — even slugs.

“It doesn’t matter whether they find one worm or thousands of worms — the response from the agencies is the same,” he says. “It’s layer upon layer upon layer of set-asides and restrictions.”

Duffin, the Palouse historian, says telling farmers that they can’t farm because of a worm would be nearly impossible.

“I think there should be a lot of environmental controls put on farmers,” he says, suggesting a government-sponsored buyback program could help save the endangered prairie lands and the organisms living in it. But then he corrects himself: “There’s not a politician anywhere in the state who would ever sign on to that.”

When Ding Johnson unearthed six giant Palouse earthworms accidentally in the late 1980s, he couldn’t tell if they smelled like lilies — but he chalks that up to “30 years of sinus problems.”

While searching for beetles in a forest of Douglas Fir trees at the foot of Moscow Mountain, giant worms were the last thing that Johnson expected to find.

But when he and a grad student pulled up a dense mat of moss, they found six white worms on the surface of the soil. Once exposed, Johnson (who works with Johnson-Maynard at the U of I; no relation) says they “moved fast like night crawlers.” They grabbed three successfully — all around a foot in length.

While Johnson missed the lily aroma the worms are notorious for, he did notice something else.

“They will spit when harassed,” he says. “It’s not actually spit — they’re regurgitating mucus. It’s fairly abrupt — it doesn’t travel any distance, it just blops out on your hand. [But] I’m a field biologist — it takes a lot to gross me out.”

Johnson preserved and shipped the worms immediately to Fender. Indeed, they were giants.

“I’ve taken a worm quest group out within feet of where we got them,” he says. “We keep holding the thought that we’ll go out again on a wet spring day and find some.”

Knowing how random some finds are, Johnson-Maynard seems to keep her hopes in check.

“My studies really don’t center just on finding the giant Palouse earthworm because I would never get anything done,” she says. “Because it’s hard to find. My earthworm ecology work is broader.”

Today, Ding Johnson laughs as he recalls his encounter with the giant white worms. He’s shocked at how cavalier he was about his discovery when it happened.

“We were just so blasé about it, we figured we could go back and find more whenever we wanted,” he says.

“I guess serendipity is still a factor in the sciences.”

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