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Stepping Into the World of Vernal Pools
 

April 23, 2009     Reported By: Anne Ravana

The University of Maine and Maine Audobon Society are teaming up with residents of 13 towns around the state to map and monitor vernal pools. The teams hope their efforts will help towns and landowners plan future development while following state Department of Environmental Protection guidelines protecting vernal pools. 

April 23, 2009     Reported By: Anne Ravana

The University of Maine and Maine Audobon Society are teaming up with residents of 13 towns around the state to map and monitor vernal pools. The teams hope their efforts will help towns and landowners plan future development while following state Department of Environmental Protection guidelines protecting vernal pools. 



On a recent rainy weeknight, about 25 volunteers are gathered around what looks like a large puddle beside a dirt road in Orono. It's actually a vernal pool. The group listens intently as University of Maine graduate student Dawn Morgan explains how to identify spotted salamander eggs. "Ok, so this is a blue spotted salamander egg mass. You can see that it's very clear, very drippy. The only way to locate these is to walk through the pool gently, carefully and pick up sticks and pieces of vegetation that are near the water surface."

Morgan is teaching the volunteers how to differentiate between salamander eggs and wood frog eggs. In the coming months, the volunteers will visit other local pools on their own. Looking on is 47-year-old volunteer Molly MacLean of Orono, who says she's eager to do the fieldwork.  "I love amphibians. I love being outside. And I'm also concerned that it's important to get a handle on what we have before we develop more and lose more habitat."
 
Anne Ravana:  "How many pools have you taken on?"

Molly MacLean:  "I actually have taken on a pretty impressive load. I believe I have chosen seven pools."
 
The Municipal Vernal Pool Mapping Project is taking place around the state, from Scarborough to Orono. Vernal pools are the only wetlands in Maine defined primarily by what breeds in them rather than by their vegetation. They're shallow depressions that fill with snowmelt and runoff in the spring.  And while they are not home to permanent fish populations, they do provide essential breeding grounds for wood frogs and salamanders.  They're also feeding and resting habitats for deer, moose, bear, and other mammals, birds, and reptiles.

Aram Calhoun, professor in the wildlife ecology department at UMaine and wetlands scientist for Maine Audobon, is coordinating the project.  "This project is at this time a 13-town project to proactively map and assess vernal pools on a town-wide scale and it was sort of inititated in response to the Significant Vernal Pool legislation and the need for towns to want to know what sort of resources they have so they can have a transparent process for communicating with landowners."

In September 2007, The Maine Department of Environmental Protection began to regulate so-called "significant" vernal pools in Maine. Vernal pools are deemed "significant" if they contain a certain number of amphibian egg masses. Right now, there's no state list of significant vernal pools, so the project is a free opportunity for residents to find out whether they have one on their property. Any development or fill activities within 250 feet of a significant vernal pool now requires a permit from the DEP.

Calhoun has been traveling around the state to help interested towns hold meetings to present the project to residents.  "The majority of these resources occur on private lands, so they're the most vulnerable. So that things like state regulation or federal regulations aren't going to conserve pool breeding habitat. It's got to happen at the local level and it has to be something that the ctizens think is valuable and contributes to their quality of place."

Back in the field, volunteer coordinator Chris Dorion, a geologist from Orono, says he likes the challenge of identifying vernal pools.
"Is it a pool? Is it a puddle? Was it an old ditch? Is it a gravel pit? They'll ask me to come out and have a visit and look at the resource and help make the determination."

But Dorion says he's even more excited about witnessing the lifecycle of the amphibians that are born inside the vernal pools. Wood frogs live up to five years and spotted salamanders live up to 20 years. "The most amazing thing to me is that the amphibians come back to the same pool every single year. And some of them range 250 feet, 500 feet, some of them actually go a mile away. On a night like tonight with a big south wind and a big warm rain, this is the big night when they really all come back en masse to their pools. It's the most amazing thing."

For more informatino on the Municipal Vernal Pool Mapping Project, and to find out if your town is taking part, visit www.umaine.edu/vernalpools

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