By Michael Pearce
A rare skunk is creating a stink between the Sedgwick County Commission and several Kansas wildlife groups.
The two sides will clash Thursday morning in Topeka.
At the county’s request, the Kansas Senate Natural Resources Committee is expected to hear a bill to remove the spotted skunk from the state’s threatened-species list.
“We’re just trying to decrease our regulatory burden,” said Richard Ranzau, the Sedgwick County Commission’s chairman. “We’d rather our engineers spend their time designing roads and bridges than applying for permits.”
He questions whether there are even any spotted skunks in Sedgwick County. None has been officially documented since 1991.
The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism thinks the squirrel-sized critters deserve protection and habitat consideration. So does Audubon of Kansas, the Kansas Sierra Club and the Kansas Wildlife Federation.
Worse than removing the species from protection, the wildlife groups say, the bill could remove decisions about threatened and endangered species classifications from Wildlife and Parks, which has served the state for more than 40 years.
Zack Pistora, Kansas Sierra Club lobbyist, is not surprised by the proposed “politics over science” approach by Sedgwick County since Wildlife and Parks gave into legislative pressure last year and removed the redbelly snake from the state’s threatened-species list to appease the Legislature.
“We feel our endangered-species list is becoming endangered,” Pistora said.
Ranzau said there are other species he would like to see removed from the threatened and endangered listings. He said he supports another bill to remove all threatened and endangered species considerations when it comes to work along rivers and streams.
Rise, decline of a speciesSpotted skunks, also known as civet or pole cats, are members of the weasel family. They were historically confined to eastern Kansas, but as settlement grew, so did their numbers.
Matt Peek, Wildlife and Parks fur-bearer biologist, said the population peaked during the early 1900s, when small farms dotted the landscape with outbuildings like corn cribs, haystacks and chicken houses. All had a lot of rodents and insects, the primary food of spotted skunks.
In the first few decades of the 1900s, around 100,000 hides from the animals were annually sold by Kansas trappers. By the 1950s, there were only 1,000 pelts. By 1970, they were rare.
The species has declined greatly across its range. Spotted skunks are on the endangered-species list in Missouri. Peek said a national listing is possible within a few years.
It’s thought the loss of habitat to cleaner farming, the use of pesticides and possible competition from other mammals may have contributed to the species’ decline. Kansas is down to a few reports of the animal per year.
About 30 years ago, several spotted skunks were found in Wichita and Sedgwick County in an area north of Maize. The region within the Cowskin Creek drainage was designated as “critical habitat” areas for the species, meaning nearly any landscape change had to follow guidelines and get state approval.
Several other areas, including near Dodge City and parts of southeast Kansas, carry the designation.
“At least they were there for a while,” said Bob Gress, a retired city naturalist and Great Plains Nature Center director. “I have no idea if there’s still a population there.”
Ranzau said it’s frustrating to think the county has had to adjust projects when he thinks the animals probably aren’t there and may never be again.
County actions have included getting plans and sites inspected and, when needed, creating habitat such as brush piles and native grass plantings. It also has had to adjust ways it maintains properties, especially wooded stream banks.
Some say the county is complaining a lot about what hasn’t affected it very much.
Jason Luginbill, Wildlife and Parks Ecological Services chief, said that between 2009 and 2014, his department investigated 1,086 potentially threatening projects in Sedgwick County. That includes projects by utility, wastewater and construction companies and state road departments. Of those, 21 required a permit to continue.
Sometimes projects were replanned so habitat wasn’t affected. Other times, habitat had to be replanted after a project was completed. On a few occasions, habitat had to be created in another area to replace some that was destroyed.
About $80,000 has been paid in mitigation fees in Sedgwick County, collectively, in that time so other habitats could be purchased and preserved or created. Luginbill said his records show Sedgwick County government has paid about $18,000 of those mitigation fees.
Including possible inspections and licensing, the time involved could vary from a few days to several months. Ranzau said the lost time could be more frustrating than mitigation fees.
As well as spotted skunks, Ranzau said, Sedgwick County has similar frustrations with other threatened and endangered species, including several species of endangered minnows, particularly those that could have an impact on such things as stream and bridge repairs.
Politics vs. scienceAll conservation groups interviewed opposed the county’s attempt to get its de-listing request settled within the Legislature instead of through the normal, scientific process.
That would include a study of biological evidence by the Kansas Endangered Species Task Committee. Because it takes a minimum of 18 months, that process would take longer than getting legislative intervention.
In October, Elaine Giessel, Kansas Sierra Club wildlife chairwoman, predicted such shortcuts would become common when Wildlife and Parks went against the task committee’s recommendation and removed the redbelly snake from the state’s threatened-species list.
The small and secretive snake, found in hickory and oak forests, had been blamed for slowing development in the Kansas City area. A bill was introduced last year to legislatively remove the snake from the list. Another was introduced to abolish the Kansas Threatened and Endangered Species Act.
Last fall, Robin Jennison, Wildlife and Parks secretary, urged the commission to remove redbelly snakes from the list to keep the Legislature from making wildlife-related decisions. This week, he said, spotted skunks are a different matter.
Unlike redbelly snakes, which are common in Missouri and several other states, spotted skunks as a species are getting special protection across most of their native range, not just in Kansas.
Jennison is frustrated that Sedgwick County decided to go to the Legislature instead of petitioning his department.
“We are trying to put more emphasis on working with people for these kinds of species,” Jennison said. “We think there are ways we can absolutely protect our threatened and endangered species and find less possible impacts on the social and economic well-being of an area.
“I think our endangered-species act is pretty gosh-darned good.”
Should the bill pass, wildlife groups say, they are afraid of similar bills in the future, because it’s an easier route than going through Wildlife and Parks and assorted state regulations.
“We have had a process that’s been on the ground for 40 years, and it’s been working,” said Giessel.
“In the last two years, we’ve seen these attacks. If they get this, that will be two species off the lists. After that, they’ll have only 20 more species to go. What’s next?” she said.