- Associated Press - Friday, January 31, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - The secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism said a proposed bill that would remove two snakes from the state’s list of threatened species would set a dangerous precedent.

Johnson County officials on Thursday asked lawmakers to remove the redbelly and smooth earth snake from state protection. They argued that the nonvenomous snakes have healthy populations in other states and accommodating their threatened status increases the costs of utility projects in the county.

But Secretary Robin Jennison said scientists, not lawmakers, should decide which animals are on the lists. And he told lawmakers that the state is already reviewing the two snakes’ status and is expected to issue an opinion by October on whether to keep them on the threatened species list.

“The thing I’m concerned about is the precedent we’re going to set if we have the Legislature start listing and de-listing threatened and endangered species,” Jennison said. “Because we have thrown science out the window if that’s what we do, if we make the listing of threatened and endangered species a political decision.”

He said decisions about what species should be on the lists are based on sighting data, literature searches, expert input and informational meetings.

But State Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, said residents in a neighborhood in her district were shocked to learn that the state is considering creating a protected habitat for the snakes behind their homes.

“You can imagine; they had things for their kids in the backyards to play on leading up to that green area,” Pilcher-Cook told the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

State Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, and representatives from utility companies said concerns about the snakes’ habitats increase the cost of public and private development.

“We’re putting these snakes where our kids play. I just think it’s a waste of taxpayer money,” he said.

The snakes are common in many Midwestern states but are scarce in Kansas. Jennison said it shouldn’t matter if only a few of the snakes exist in the state.

“It is important to recognize that species in decline tend to collapse toward the periphery of the range,” he said.

The Audubon of Kansas also opposed the bill.

The committee took no action.

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