Should Johnson County Pay for Snake Habitat?

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JOHNSON COUNTY, Kan. -- The State of Kansas wants Johnson County to build a habitat for a pair of snake species considered threatened but not endangered. County commissioners and neighbors don't like the price tag and say the plan might not work anyway.

Johnson County has identified 11 acres at a waste water treatment plant that could be converted to a snake habitat. Doing so could cost up to half-a-million dollars. County commissioners aren't sure it will even work. Neighbors don't want it to work.

Tara Geer says the proposed habitat would be just beyond her backyard.

"We don't want necessarily our kids playing with a bunch of little snakes even if they do exist there which there's no evidence to support that they do, even if they're non-venomous but do you want a bunch of snakes in your yard? " said neighbor Tara Geer.

The snakes are Smooth Earth Snakes and Red Belly Snakes. Biologists say both are harmless to people but are themselves being harmed by people. Developers in Shawnee want to chop trees where biologists think the snakes live. The state says no new sewer lines unless Johnson County plants new habitat.

"We've got got educational needs, we have road issues, we have plenty of issues that we could throw half-a-million dollars at," Geer said. "We don't need to throw it at non-endangered snakes."

County commissioner Calvin Hayden says the state can't prove there was a thriving population to begin with and isn't asking anyone to relocate snakes to the proposed habitat once it's built.

"They've  spent literally thousands of dollars to try to locate them and the best they've got is well they're very elusive, " Hayden said. "Nobody is touching a snake in this deal, we're not even sure they're here. It's that absurd."

Commissioners think the whole snake dilemma is ridiculous because if the snakes already live there why build them new habitat. And if they don't, how will snakes know to find the new habitat?

"I don't know that they've got a radar that tells them to come here and find this habitat it's ridiculous,"  Hayden said.

Even more ridiculous Hayden says the county would have to take out existing trees to plant hickory and oak trees that the snakes prefer.

FOX 4 talked to a state biologist who said it's an ecological assumption that if you build a snake habitat they will come. The snakes that are considered threatened are common in the eastern U.S. and are only considered threatened in our area because eastern Kansas is where their range ends.

On Tuesday, county commissioners are meeting with state officials in Topeka to see if they can call existing parkland snake habitat and call it even.

Kansas biologists did a two year study trying to find the elusive Smooth Earth and Red Belly snakes. In Johnson County, they found two Smooth Earth Snakes but no Red Bellys. In Wyandotte County they found six of each species.

In Douglas County, they found eight Smooth Earth and 14 Red Belly snakes. Biologists say if you find one, there are more and it's the state's responsibility to protect what's left.

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