SPOKANE, Wash -- The giant Palouse earthworm isn't that big, doesn't spit and doesn't smell like lillies, and now a federal court has decided it is not time to grant the worm endangered species protection.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week affirmed a lower court ruling that found there is not enough evidence to prove the little-seen worm is threatened. Justices found that virtually all information about the creature is limited and inconclusive.
In April, University of Idaho officials announced that living specimens of the worm were captured for the first time in two decades. While the 9th Circuit decision involved a petition filed several years ago, environmentalists have since filed a new petition seeking endangered species protection.
"We think that under the new (Obama) administration, that petition will get a better hearing than the last one did," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director for the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland, Ore.
Greenwald contends the handful of sightings of the worm in the past 100 years indicates it is endangered.
The giant Palouse earthworm has fascinated scientists for decades after long being written off as an extinct creature that once lived in the Palouse region of the Washington-Idaho border. Reports suggested that the worms had a penchant for spitting and smelled like lilies.
The recent discovery of the worms appeared to dispel the myth about the creature's appearance. They don't spit, or smell like lilies, and aren't even that giant. While they had been thought to grow to 3 feet long, the adult worm measured about 10 or 12 inches fully extended, while the juvenile was 6 or 7 inches.
The Palouse earthworm was first reported to the scientific world in 1897. Massive agricultural development soon consumed nearly all of the unique Palouse Prairie -- a seemingly endless ocean of steep, silty dunes -- and appeared to deal a fatal blow to the worm.
In the late 1980s, a University of Idaho scientist found two worms near Moscow, Idaho. They were the last living specimens found until this year.
The worms were considered extinct until 2005, when an Idaho graduate student found a specimen near Albion. But that worm had been cut nearly in half as she was digging a hole.
That's when the Center for Biological Diversity and other conservation groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the worm as an endangered species, citing as proof the lack of sightings. But the agency said there simply was not enough scientific information to merit a listing, and a federal judge in Spokane agreed.
The conservation groups appealed that decision to the 9th Circuit.
"Evidence regarding the population of giant Palouse earthworm is limited and inconclusive," the appeals court said in an unpublished ruling Monday, and there was no reason to conclude the worm faced a threat from agriculture and residential development.