Correction: An earlier version of this story contained a wrong vote total.
Redbelly snakes are no longer protected under the Kansas Threatened and Endangered Species act. The Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Commission voted 6-1 during its meeting Thursday night to remove the tiny, secretive snake from the state’s threatened species list.
It will now be considered a “species in need of conservation,” a label that carries very little protection from habitat exploitation.
Robin Jennison, Wildlife and Parks secretary, said one reason he made the request of the commission was to prevent legislative intervention. Last spring a bill was introduced to remove the species from the list. Another was added to totally revoke the state’s threatened and endangered species program.
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Jennison said while he doubted the legislature would ever totally discard the endangered species program, he feared they might start hitting it, and the department, with increased limitations.
“Right now, I am convinced if we don’t take this action it will impact our agency, and our ability to manage endangered species,” Jennison said.
He said that he still wants the department to find ways to help the species that lives within the leaf litter of mature oak and hickory forests.
Ed Miller, Wildlife and Parks endangered species program coordinator, said the seven-member Kansas Threatened and Endangered Species task committee recently voted unanimously to keep redbelly snakes on the threatened list, as did several advisers. Miller said they saw no signs of population improvement for the species that’s been listed for several decades.
Jennison said he never doubted the findings of the committee.
Redbelly snakes have never been deemed common in Kansas, and Jennison showed frustration that no solid base number for past and current populations has been shown. Meanwhile, the threatened listing has complicated some development projects in the Kansas City area.
Tim Fobes, an environmental consultant with the city of Olathe, showed the commission a map that illustrated how few redbellies have been found in Kansas, including none in Johnson County. He also told the commission that redbelly snakes are considered common in Missouri and many other states.
Susan Pekarek, chief engineer for the Johnson County Water Works, said dealing with redbelly snakes protection delays work on projects and can cost sizable fees in mitigation that can be used to protect or buy habitat in other areas.
Pekarek said two ongoing sewer projects, worth about $30 million, paid about $94,000 in mitigation because of redbelly snakes. That cost, she said, is passed on to the public.
Jennison said the current endangered species legislation in Kansas says species should be protected for biological reasons, but added it also says socioeconomic and cultural issues should be considered.
Several members of the Kansas Sierra Club were there to speak against the downlisting.
“To put politics above science-based determination sets a precedent that wildlife species in Kansas cannot afford,” Elaine Giessel, the group’s endangered species chairwoman, read from a prepared statement. “Delisting the redbelly snake administratively will accomplish what the legislature attempted to do last session. The result is the same. No species currently listed will be safe from arbitrary delisting; no new species is likely ever to be added.”
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