A tiny, seldom-seen snake that’s impeded development in Johnson County will be removed from the state’s threatened species list over the recommendation of scientists.
The Kansas wildlife commission voted late Thursday to downgrade protections of the redbelly snake at the urging of Wildlife Secretary Robin Jennison.
Protecting the snake’s habitat has been blamed for driving up development costs in Johnson County, leading several local government agencies to press for having the snake removed from the list.
A panel of scientists recommended keeping the snake on the threatened list, meaning developers would need to get state permits and to spend money restoring any damage they might do to the snake’s habitat.
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Environmentalists said the decision is the first time in 40 years the state has cast aside the recommendation of its science task force.
Jennison conceded his recommendation is a political one, saying that he’s trying to balance conservation with “social and economic concerns.”
Echoing themes voiced by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, Jennison said the state doesn’t want to be like the federal government, taking a heavy-handed approach to environmental regulations.
Jennison said voluntary conservation is better than getting tough through regulations. Ultimately, Jennison said, mandating conservation through regulations could cost the department its authority.
“I am very concerned with the reaction that society is having with how we protect those species,” Jennison said in an interview. “Can we do a better job of protecting those species without the regulatory hammer?”
Jennison argues that although the snake is on the endangered list, there is no good data showing how — or if — its population has changed over the years.
Environmentalists argue that Jennison is setting a precedent that could lead to other threatened animals being removed from the list if they impede economic development.
“Science doesn’t matter,” said the Sierra Club’s Elaine Geissel. “If a spotted skunk is in your way, too bad. If for economic reasons, it’s in your way, you have precedent to override the science.”
The redbelly snake, which generally measures no more than 10 inches long, is reddish brown with an orange belly. It is not poisonous. It lives largely unseen under rocks, leaves and logs in wooded areas.
A recent study by the Kansas Biological Survey shows that redbelly snakes have been captured only seven times from 2010 to 2013. They were found in Johnson, Douglas, Franklin and Miami counties.
In recent years, however, the snake has complicated development in Johnson County because of state regulations protecting the reptile.
When it expanded its Cedar Creek sewer plant for $46 million, Olathe spent $50,000 to preserve habitat for the snake. Johnson County spent $95,000 mitigating for the snake on two sewer projects totaling $30 million.
Johnson County WaterOne is spending $130,000 in habitat preservation on a $67 million water line project serving the southeastern part of the county.
All three agencies petitioned to remove the snake from the threatened list. Earlier this year, they tried to get the Kansas Legislature to pass a law removing the snake from the list.
That bill died in anticipation that the snake would be removed from the list administratively.