By Margaret Slayton
Administrators for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism are considering the removal of a small, nonvenomous snake from its status as threatened in response to petitions from developers.
During a recent meeting in Great Bend, Kan., state officials voiced approval to de-listing the redbelly snake as development continues to grow in Johnson and Wyandotte counties.
According to the department of wildlife’s website, the letter to petition the change in the listing of the species was submitted by Johnson County Wastewater, Johnson County WaterOne and the City of Olathe.
The Kansas Threatened and Endangered Species Task Force, composed of seven volunteer biologists, voted unanimously that the snake should remain listed as threatened in response to the petition.
But the department’s secretary, Robin Jennison, urged the Kansas Conservation Commission to overturn the recommendation of the task force and change the listing of the species from “threatened” to “species in need of conservation.”
He stated his concern is that the state legislature will remove the authority of the wildlife agency to govern threatened and endangered species if they continue to require the developers to purchase a permit or pay mitigation expenses for habitat loss associated with projects.
His concerns stem from when Sen. Larry Powell from Garden City, Kan., introduced a bill to repeal the Kansas Nongame and Endangered Species Act of 1975 earlier this year. The bill did not pass.
“In part my decision is political to make sure that we can continue to do the job that we have to protect endangered and threatened species, but that we do that in a way that’s viewed to be reasonable,” Jennison said. “I think that’s true with the redbelly snake since we’re on the fringe of its range.”
The change in listing would remove hindrances to the growth of developers, Jennison added.
“The challenge is not in the listing of the species, but in the regulatory reaction of government to deal with species that are threatened or endangered,” Jennison said. “The regulatory reaction is what’s troublesome to the pubic. We need to find a way to do this so it’s not regulatory.”
The commission stated they are also considering removing three species from the state endangered list because they are believed to have already become extirpated in the state.
In addition, the commission is proposing to list five other species including the smooth earth snake from “threatened” to “species in need of conservation.”
Jennison said the state agency is hoping conservation organizations will partner with them to fund mitigation efforts in response to a decline in populations due to developers.
Members of the Kansas Wildlife Federation, the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club, wildlife photographers and private landowners voiced concerns for delisting the species at the meeting.
Elaine Giessel, member of the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club, said that developers should be required to undergo a process before building in the habitat of the species.
“This is not just about the snake,” Giessel said. “It’s about the snake being a proxy to the critical habitat. If we lose the designation of the snake then we lose a tool to protect the habitat and there is a lot of wildlife that live in these oak hickory forests. The down listing of the species has broader implications because the habitat that they represent is disappearing.”
She also questions the reasons the wildlife agency uses when determining the listing of species.
“I am concerned this will set a precedent that the secretary could arbitrarily pick any species off that list based entirely on his recommendation and not on the science which is actually specified in the law,” Giessel said. “He could entirely dismantle the threatened and endangered species act in Kansas and to me that is a serious issue at hand.”
The next commission meeting is scheduled at 1. p.m. on Oct. 16 at the Martinelli’s Restaurant in Salina.
Public comments on the proposed changes can be made by email to email@example.com or mailed to the Kansas Department of Wildlife at 1020 S. Kansas Ave., Suite 200, Topeka Kansas, 66612.