Redbelly and smooth earth snakes spend most of their lives underground gorging on slugs, worms and snails.
Now the reptiles are surfacing, at least bureaucratically, to devour Johnson County tax dollars.
State officials insist Johnson County replace any endangered species habitat it disturbs while building new sewers -- requiring new homes for snakes on 11 acres at a cost of $250,000 to $500,000.
Several Johnson County commissioners are balking.
"We just had food pantries in here looking for assistance, and we are going to spend up to a half million dollars on a snake that no one here has probably ever seen?" Commissioner Calvin Hayden said at a recent board meeting. "This is asinine."
Just how many snakes might be shoved from their homes by any sewer project is hard to tell. The two species are hard to find, harder to count and especially elusive during drought. But scientists know they're native to the area.
State officials presume continued suburban sprawl is sure to crowd them out even more -- meaning each new development potentially faces what amounts to a tax to save the snakes.
The most recent conflict springs from a sewer project that the county is planning to outfit a new subdivision spanning 563 acres near 83rd Street and Monticello Road in southwest Shawnee.
A consolidated sewer district was formed in 2007, and the cost to build the sewers was estimated at $4.3 million. The recession delayed work, but the project is pending again.
Because the county will destroy possible snake lodgings when it digs up ground and cuts down trees and bushes for sewers, state law requires that the Johnson County Wastewater district provide potential serpent habitat elsewhere.
David Bender, ecologist for Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, was surprised by county officials' reaction. Johnson County wastewater officials, after all, began work on the mitigation plan in 2009. Bender thought it was a done deal.
"It's frustrating for us," Bender said. "We worked through the entire process with Johnson County Wastewater. There is a state law, and part of that state law requires mitigation."
Commissioner Ed Peterson, who has been on the board since 2003, said he was familiar with the project but only learned in the last eight weeks from county staff about the cost of the snake habitat.
County Manager Hannes Zacharias said the county is trying to follow state law, but commissioners want a better explanation of why the species are endangered, and whether the state can grant a waiver on replacing their homes.
This isn't the first time the redbelly and smooth earth snakes have caused an uproar. The Kansas City Star published a story in June about the Crimson Ridge subdivision in northwestern Shawnee. Parkland winding through that neighborhood had been purchased by David Flick of Terra Technologies, who mitigates undeveloped property for developers.
Flick upset residents when he told them he is constructing snake habitat in a park to protect the snakes. That problem is still being worked out with the residents, the city of Shawnee and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Meantime, Flick was hired as an ecology expert for $40,000 to help the county develop a snake habitat mitigation plan. County land next to the Blue River Wastewater Treatment Plant near 151st Street and Mission Road was selected for mitigation for the Monticello Road sewer project.
Commissioners object to more than the cost. They also question whether the snakes should be on the state's endangered species list. They wonder if anyone knows for sure how many snakes there are or if they've ever been abundant in Johnson County.
Commissioner Michael Ashcraft is skeptical.
"I don't believe (the bureaucrats) necessarily understand the significance of spending other people's money for something that doesn't exist anywhere except in their imagination," he said. "No wonder people look at us, and they are skeptical, they're dubious."
State officials spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to survey the snake population in Johnson County, Bender said. But that's yielded little data on the reptiles.
"They are very secretive animals," he said. "They thrive underground."
The snakes are even harder to find now because of the drought. During dry periods they go underground and stay there until moisture returns, Bender says.
Their territory ranges from the East Coast to Canada to Texas and into the eastern edge of Kansas. The snakes are only classified as endangered in Kansas. Johnson, Wyandotte and Douglas counties sit at the western-most area of where the snakes are found.
Adult redbelly and smooth earth snakes grow 7 to 10 inches long. They are nonpoisonous and flourish in areas that include hickory and oak trees. They gravitate to moist, cool, dark areas such as brush piles, under limbs and low-hanging berries, which are plagued by slugs.
To build the snake habitat, invasive and non-native plants and trees are removed. Native hickory and oak trees, berry plants and other vegetation are grown.
State law requires that the new habitat be monitored in perpetuity, which will cost more money, officials said.
Bender says even though the state doesn't have scientific population data, officials believe the snakes are endangered in Johnson County because of the loss of habitat caused by ongoing commercial and residential development.
"It's easy to see how much habitat has been lost," Bender said.
The snakes have been spotted in the area, including near Kill Creek and during the construction of NASCAR's Kansas Speedway in southern Wyandotte County. In fact, land south of the track is being converted into a snake habitat.
Listing an animal as endangered falls to a committee of biologists and experts in the field, and is subject to scientific debate. County officials, Bender said, can oppose the listing. But overturning that scientific and legal argument could take years and mean substantial research and legal costs.
All of which leaves Hayden, the county commissioner, frustrated.
"If the average voter knew this, they would think we were all idiots," Hayden said. "The way (the bureaucrats) look at it, it's not their money."
Bender, meantime, said there are ways to build snake habitats more cheaply. For one thing, the places for the harmless reptiles can be incorporated into park land.
"Foot traffic won't impact snake habitats," he said. "We encourage people to go out and enjoy redbelly snakes."