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Mike Nichols column: Snake not so endangered, just a pain in the grass

1:01 PM, Jun. 1, 2013  |  Comments
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You know how some issues and things have legs?

Well, for an unremarkable, bland little reptile that has never done anything but get in the way of the lawnmower - and a lot of development - the Butler's garter snake has always had some absurdly long ones.

In fact, you would have thought from the way the environmentalists and anti-development forces coddled the thing for 16 long years, swore it was special and unique and worthy of more protections than a member of the federal witness protection program, that it also had ankles and feet and toes.

For years and years and years, Wisconsin's bureaucrats and politicians said the thing basically walked on water - until just the other day when the Natural Resources Board finally took it off the protected species list.

The truth is that it should never have been on there in the first place. But what's really remarkable is the fact that no one who deified the little serpent - and impeded the growth of too many important projects to count - has ever apologized, let alone offered to pay back untold millions of dollars taken out of the pockets of developers and taxpayers.

"I just wish they had some recourse; the city, too, for the loss of our tax base," said Ted Wysocki, a former New Berlin mayor who has always thought the deference shown to a common snake was "absurd."

"Screwed up our entire development plan" in what is known as City Center, he said.

Officials and private-sector developers in New Berlin spent years planning the ambitious mixed-use development back in the late 1990s and were moving full-speed ahead. Then somebody discovered a Butler's. In more logical times, they would have whacked it with a shovel. Instead, development on a big chunk of the land came to a standstill for years. Developers who had a lot of carrying costs suffered. One, says Wysocki, even went bankrupt. Plans had to be redrawn. Five or six acres - still undeveloped to this day - had to be set aside.

A lot has happened with the City Center project over time. A new library was built. There's quite a bit of retail development. But a lot more could have happened and a lot quicker than it ever actually did. City officials can't quantify the loss of tax dollars, let alone the impact to developers, but it has been enormous.

And what happened - or didn't happen - at City Center isn't unique. The snakes seemed to show up everywhere in southeastern Wisconsin, which made logical people wonder how something that seems to be everywhere could be threatened.

Turns out it wasn't.

Formally known as Thamnophis butleri (Latin for "pain in the butt"), the snake was one of 15 species on the original Wisconsin Endangered Species Law in 1972. It was delisted in 1975 after significant numbers were found. But it was re-listed as a threatened species in 1997 partly because of fears it was swapping genes (having snake sex) with other, slightly different snakes and somehow making itself more rare even as it reproduced.

Really.

Anyway, turns out that wasn't really something to worry about. It also turns out Butler's garter snakes are present in more places in Wisconsin than the experts thought they were. And they're able to tolerate development pretty well. And anyway, there are Butler's garter snakes in other states so if you lose a few here, who really cares?

State government realized all this gradually and protections for the snake were relaxed over the years. It wasn't until recently though that the DNR took the snake off its list.

Makes you wonder how many other species Wisconsin protects that it shouldn't. Makes you wonder when Wisconsin will get serious about protecting something else instead: the rights of a species that really does have legs. Us.

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