Community Conservation of Vernal Pools

On April 26, 2022, CREA hosted a panel to share an innovative mechanism for protecting vernal pools that is being used in Topsham and Orono. Dr. Aram Calhoun, Professor Emerita of Wetland Ecology in the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation Biology at the University of Maine, led with a brief primer on vernal pools and why they’re important. You can read a summary of the program below or access the presentation at the end of this post.

Vernal pools are small, ephemeral ponds or wetlands that contain no predators such as fish, bullfrogs, or green frogs. Because they have no predators, these pools provide excellent breeding habitat for amphibians such as wood frogs, spotted salamanders, and blue-spotted salamanders. If you missed Matt Burnes’ deep dive into vernal pools in May of 2020, check it out here. Some of the creatures (and their habits) he reveals may keep you up at night!

Vernal pools supply food to a wide range of animals, including bear, herons, moose, turkeys, owls, ducks, mink, deer, shorebirds, barred owls, and hawks. The amphibians continue to serve as a food source for these animals after they leave the pools.

Vernal pools and the creatures that depend on them for breeding are challenging to protect because many of their inhabitants spend a very small part of their lifespan in the pools. The amphibians travel hundreds of feet from the pool and juveniles can travel miles. So, amphibians have complex habitat needs that are not easy to protect.

The current federal and regulatory structure is fairly rigid. The Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) regulates areas within 750 feet of vernal pools and Maine DEP regulates areas within 250 feet of significant vernal pools (which includes only 20% of Maine’s vernal pools). As we understand more about where amphibians move on the landscape, there is growing recognition that these approaches do not fully protect these creatures.

The good news is that a diverse group of stakeholders invested seven years in developing a new, more flexible mechanism for protecting vernal pools and the animals they support. The mechanism is a Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) – a tool offered by the Army Corps of Engineers that takes into account sensitive natural resources and economic needs.

In this application, towns can apply to ACOE and Maine DEP to implement a SAMP program locally. If approved, towns adopt an associated ordinance and are then delegated the authority to regulate vernal pools.

Under this program, developers who have projects that could impact vernal pools in identified growth zones can pay a mitigation fee to the town. The town funnels the fee to a local land trust, which uses the funds to permanently protect vernal pools and adjacent land in a rural area outside the growth zone. It’s worth noting that the urban vernal pools impacted in the growth zone are not functional anyway because typically, they are geographically and genetically isolated – conditions which do not foster a healthy ecosystem long-term.

Dr. Jessica Jansujwicz described her research on the human dimensions of natural resource protection. Her research identified a need to devise ways to communicate with towns, land trusts, and landowners that would allay concerns and preconceptions that could prevent them from considering use of this new, more flexible tool. Her research identified the importance of meeting stakeholders on their turf, choosing the right messenger, and looking for ways to match their objectives.

We then heard from four panelists who were involved with the SAMP planning effort.

Liz Hertz, former wetlands policy specialist with the State Planning Office, emphasized that setting up a SAMP process in a town is complicated, but it does reap rewards.

Rod Melanson, Planning Director for Topsham, pointed out that the SAMP program is very consistent with towns’ desires to protect rural character, plan for growth areas, and identify priorities for conservation.

Angela Twitchell, Executive Director of Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, applauded the collaborative process that created the vernal pool SAMP program and its value as a tool to fund local conservation.

Jim Howard, CEO of Priority Real Estate Group, noted that the SAMP tool promotes use of growth areas, keeps development out of rural areas, saves time (as state and federal processes require assessment of vernal pools during one short period of time in spring), and is particularly valuable for infill development.

Additional information on the SAMP program can be found here along with excellent information about vernal pool ecology and egg mass identification, training resources for people interested in participating in a Big Night, and more! You can watch the presentation below: