A leading herpetologist said Kansas’ ongoing debate about redbelly snakes in Kansas is much ado about nothing.
“It is a secretive, not a rare snake,” said Travis Taggert, Center of North American Herpetology director, via e-mail when asked about the species. “It is a snake that actually does well in urban settings throughout their range.”
The snake has been listed on the state’s threatened species list for more than 20 years. Efforts to protect the species, and the mature, oak and hickory forests, where they were believed to live, had been putting a damper on some development projects in Wyandotte and Johnson counties.
Last spring, some legislators failed to get a bill passed that would remove redbelly snakes from the threatened species list. Opposition to the bill lead to another bill that would have dismantled the Kansas Threatened and Endangered Species program completely. It, too, failed, but only after great debate and media attention.
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In June, Robin Jennison, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism secretary, created a controversy when he said he would start proceedings to get the snake removed from the threatened list. His request came shortly after the Kansas Threatened and Endangered Species Task Committee said populations indicated the snake still needed the listing for protection.
“We felt the status of the species hadn’t really changed,” said Bill Busby, a committee member and Kansas Biological Survey associate scientist who has been studying redbelly snakes since 2009. “We had seen a real drop off in some places that coincided with the drought.”
Jennison said the agency, which has administered the state’s threatened and endangered species laws, would continue to work toward protecting redbelly snakes and their habitat. He also admitted fear of losing control of the threatened and endangered species act through legislative action was a main reason he wants the snakes removed from the listing.
But Taggert, also Sternberg Museum herpetology curator at Fort Hays State University, doubts the snake ever should have been listed, and said current information certainly says it should not.
“We probably have triple the amount of information on those snakes that we had when they were listed,” Taggert said. “We’ve been thinking they only live in old growth forests, but now other states have records that say that’s not the case. They have found some 10 miles away from forests. Another thing is that from Missouri and on eastward it’s now known the snake does well in urban settings. They’re not uncommonly found in people’s yards. They’ve found them in vacant lots in Springfield, Mo. We haven’t really been checking in some of those urban areas.”
He also noted that Kansas is the far western edge of the snake’s habitat. Taggert and Busby agreed the state probably never had a large population of redbellies. The snakes aren’t considered threatened or endangered in most of their range east of Kansas.
Taggert also said it’s often hard to find redbelly snakes, even in good areas. The snakes are small, generally 6-10 inches, and spend much of their time in leaf litter, which can be expansive in many forested areas. They’re also only active in wet times, when its easiest for them to find their main food source – slugs.
When conditions are right, though, the snakes can be pretty active. Taggert recalled such an instance last summer, in extreme southeast Kansas when he was trying to find cottonmouth snakes along the Spring River. He found none of the venomous snakes after a lot of looking, but quite a few redbellies in a short period of time.
“The last night I was down there we’d gotten a pretty good rain, so I went out and drove some roads. I picked up six redbellies in about 30 minutes,” Taggert said. “It was wet, and they were out moving, looking for food.”
Curtis Schmidt, zoologist for Sternberg, said he agrees the snake’s status shouldn’t be changed, but also agrees it probably never should have been listed.
“If you find them even occasionally, the population is at least big enough to sustain themselves,” he said. “These are little snakes that don’t move much, don’t reproduce a lot. If they were indeed rare, they’d probably go extinct in that area.”