Barely a half-foot long without a drop of venom, the redbelly snake hardly seems a threat.
Unless you’re a developer or public official in Johnson County.
Listed by Kansas as a threatened species, the reddish brown reptile with the orange belly is complicating growth in Johnson County.
County leaders are reluctant to dip into taxpayers’ wallets to preserve a snake habitat disrupted by new development. So they are waging a battle with the seldom-seen snake that’s not much longer than a typical worm.
They’re asking the Kansas Legislature to remove the redbelly and the comparable smooth earth snake from the state’s threatened species list.
That sets up a familiar debate pitting the cost-saving demands of development against species preservation that some see as environmental overreach.
“You’ve got an economy that’s struggling to recover, and this adds costs to every development and every business that wants to build,” said Doug Mays, a lobbyist for the city of Olathe. “That’s a problem.”
The debate over species protection grows more pronounced in the Kansas Legislature as powerful utility and agricultural interests press lawmakers to relieve the financial burden of complying with more regulations.
There have been fights to limit the state’s endangered species law by critics who say it protects animals that may be rare in Kansas but remain abundant elsewhere.
Lawmakers are also considering a measure to block the federal government from protecting the lesser prairie chicken in Kansas.
“There appears to be a major movement afoot to try and undermine all the protections available to threatened and endangered species,” said Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas.
He called it a “war on wildlife.”
Businesses say they want the state to enforce the endangered species law in a way that allows a different balance between conservation and economics.
“We want to be good stewards,” said Aaron Popelka, lobbyist for the Kansas Livestock Association. “The accusation that we’re trying to undermine species conservation is completely off base.”
Some lawmakers say the issue leaves them torn because it pits the economy against the environment.
“That’s a hard one,” said Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Winfield Democrat who sits on the House Natural Resources Committee.
“What we really have to be concerned about is if it is a linchpin species, if it’s one that’s really going to disturb the balance of the ecosystem.”
The fight over species started this year when Secretary of State Kris Kobach urged lawmakers to pass a bill barring the federal government from protecting the lesser prairie chicken in Kansas.
Kobach wants Kansas to assert sovereignty rights challenging what rules the federal government can impose on the state.
Federal wildlife officials say there has never been a case where a state nullified enforcement of the federal Endangered Species Act. Montana tried to nullify the federal species protection law in 2011, but the bill died after critics said it would cost the state roughly $1 billion in federal funds.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is deciding whether to place the bird on the federal endangered species list because development and farmland are consuming its habitat.
The bird’s geographical territory, including southwest Kansas and parts of Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma and New Mexico, has been reduced by 86 percent since the mid-1800s.
Threats to the bird include wind farms, oil and gas production, herbicides, drought and livestock grazing.
Kansas Electric Cooperatives and the Kansas Farm Bureau back the bill.
Designating the bird as endangered or threatened could stymie the state’s wind industry by limiting placement of wind turbines. It also could double the cost of building power transmission lines.
Gov. Sam Brownback recently sent a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service asking that the bird not be listed as endangered. Such a designation would hurt the state’s agriculture and energy sectors, he said, and the state is ready to challenge the federal agency in court.
Last year, utility and agriculture interests backed a Kansas bill limiting the species placed on the state endangered list.
That bill stemmed from construction of a feedlot in southwest Kansas that would have encroached on the longnose snake, which was on the state’s endangered list.
Ultimately the feedlot came up with an alternative plan and avoided paying as much as $50,000 for preserving the snake’s habitat.
As with the case of the snakes in Johnson County, the longnose snake is rare in Kansas because the state is on the outer edge of its geographical home. The longnose snake is not threatened nationally.
The Kansas Livestock Association pushed the bill, claiming Kansas regulated the environment more stringently than the federal government.
The bill’s critics argued that it would eviscerate the state’s endangered species law.
Kansas Wildlife and Parks Secretary Robin Jennison said the bill would have slashed the state’s endangered list of 60 animals by nearly half.
He also pushed back against charges the state leaned in favor of environmental interests.
From 2008 to 2012, the agency reviewed 9,127 projects. Just 50 of them led to environmental restoration.
The department’s enforcement of endangered species rules, he told lawmakers, is “hardly heavy-handed.”
In Johnson County, officials blame the redbelly snake and the smooth earth snake for driving up the cost of water and sewer lines.
Olathe spent $50,000 to preserve habitat for the snakes when it expanded its Cedar Creek sewer plant for $46 million.
Johnson County spent $95,000 mitigating for the snakes on two sewer projects totaling $30 million.
Johnson County WaterOne is spending $130,000 in habitat preservation for a $67 million water line project serving the southeastern part of the county.
“Granted, it sounds like it’s not much, but it’s still unjustified dollars,” WaterOne lobbyist Darci Meese told lawmakers. “It would be difficult for the public to understand in most cases why we’re trying to create a habitat for a snake no one can seem to find.”
The redbelly and smooth earth snakes live largely unseen in wooded areas under rocks, leaves and logs.
From 2009 through 2013, the Kansas Biological Survey recorded reports of two smooth earth snakes in Johnson County and five others in Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties. One redbelly snake was reported in Leavenworth.
A redbelly snake has never been reported in Wyandotte or Johnson counties, although a suitable habitat exists there, said Bill Busby, associate scientist for the biological survey.
The Brownback administration opposes using legislation to take the snakes off the list. Jennison said there is protocol for scientifically evaluating whether animals should be on the list.
The state has received petitions seeking to remove nine species, including requests from Olathe, WaterOne and Johnson County to remove the snakes.
Biologists will study the petitions and make a recommendation to the parks and wildlife secretary.
Jennison urged legislators not to micromanage the endangered species list.
“We have thrown science out the window,” he said, “if we make the act of listing our species a political decision.”