By Gene Meyer | Kansas Reporter
FAIRWAY – Snakes alive!
For now, anyway.
A couple rare species of the serpents are — maybe — in the way of a sewer construction project in Johnson County, where the Board of County Commissioners is scheduled to vote Thursday morning on a plan to create an 11-acre habitat for the displaced creatures.
John O’Neil is the county’s waste water operations director. He says two species on the Kansas list — redbelly snakes and smooth earth snakes — are believed to live along an oak and hickory lined creek near where the county is placing sewer lines for a planned housing development in Shawnee.
“We don’t actually know the snakes are there,” O’Neil said. “But Wildlife and Parks has determined we would degrade their environment.”
Estimated cost for the makeshift serpentarium: $250,000 to $500,000.
Median-priced homes for humans in the county is less, or about $210,000, according to the latest U.S. Census figures.
The idea makes County Commissioner Calvin Hayden squirm. He represents a largely unincorporated area beyond the sprawling Kansas City suburbs that make Johnson the state’s leading county in per capita income.
“It’s asinine,” he says.
“Kansas, in its infinite wisdom, is only state out of the entire 50 in the nation that has decided these two snakes need protection,” Hayden said. “It’s an extremely expensive and poor use of taxpayers’ money.”
It’s also is the law, says Eric Johnson, ecological services section chief at the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks headquarters in Pratt.
Specifically, the Kansas Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1975 requires developers to provide a suitable habitat for any threatened or endangered wildlife whose environments they would disturb. Wildlife and Parks counts about five dozen fish, reptiles, bugs and other creatures as threatened or endangered.
Kansas developers typically tackle about 1,800 projects a year that require some form of environmental inspections, Johnson said.
“We can work out something with most of them ahead of time to assure they comply,” he said.
Of those 1,800, maybe about 10 cases a year are a bit more slippery, such the one in Johnson County.
The county has some wooded land next to a water treatment plant in southern Overland Park, where the snakes could go. But Wildlife and Parks says that land needs to be upgraded, removing all non-native plants growing there and putting in more oak and hickory to shed leaves — the snakes live underneath.
“We’re in the sewer-building business, not the snake protection business,” O’Neil said. “We hired some consultants, they calculated what needed to be done, and that’s when the costs started going up.”
Wildlife and Parks analysts once calculated the cost of moving the snakes at less than $200,000, though each side says it doesn’t understand the other’s numbers.
With no more evidence than anyone has presented that snakes in the county would be hurt, “If we lay down and let this happen, shame on us,” Hayden says.
Board members Thursday can choose to approve or reject a proposed settlement with Wildlife and Parks, or table it for further work.
Contact Gene Meyer at email@example.com