As the snow begins to melt, many of us soon will hear the sounds of spring peepers and wood frogs calling around vernal pools — unique natural areas that have garnered much attention and confusion this legislative session.

Vernal pools are small, shallow wetlands that provide big benefits to people and wildlife. They are critical habitat for many species, particularly frogs and salamanders, but they also are used by waterfowl and deer.

Vernal pools also help fuel the surrounding forest food chain as countless larger predators, from red fox to mink to woodland hawks, prey on the annual crop of frogs and salamanders that emerge from these habitats every year.

Recently, there has been substantial focus and misconceptions regarding Maine’s laws on vernal pools. Unlike several other northeastern states, Maine does not protect all vernal pools. The state protects only “significant vernal pools” based on specific scientific criteria designed to target pools hosting rare and endangered species or exceptionally high populations of pool-breeding indicator amphibians.

Not every mud puddle or skidder rut is considered significant. In fact, of the nearly 1,200 vernal pools reviewed to date by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, only about 240 pools (20 percent) have been identified as significant vernal pools.

Further confusion arises when Maine is compared against other states in the Northeast, especially with regard to “buffers” — the setback for land surrounding the pool.

Vermont, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland and Virginia apply smaller buffers to a larger proportion of vernal pools than does Maine. These buffers (25-100 feet) are too small to adequately support many of the wildlife populations that require forested habitat surrounding the pool.

Maine has a more scientifically supported buffer size of 250 feet that is applied to a limited subset of the state’s highest-value vernal pools. The state’s conservation approach focuses on quality and functionality, not quantity.

Some have blamed Maine’s vernal pool protections for impeding development. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection, however, has not denied a single permit for a development proposal involving a significant vernal pool, according to its own briefing to the Legislature last week (March 23).

Some also assume the word “buffer” to mean “no development activity.” This is not the case with Maine’s vernal pool rules. Forest management activities, including associated road construction, are exempt from vernal pool protections. Low-intensity development activity is also permissible, provided it is planned in a manner that minimizes its impact to pool-breeding wildlife.

Maine’s significant vernal pools have been part of the state’s regulated natural resources for almost four years, and part of Maine’s natural landscape for thousands of years.

Poorly planned development, however, can wipe these unique habitats out in a matter of days.

Legislators beholden to a few outspoken, highly paid development lobbyists should remember that the silent majority of Mainers treasure the natural heritage that makes this state special. Any change to science-based natural resource protections should not be done hastily and in response to unsubstantiated rhetoric, but rather with careful consideration of the facts.

 

Anne Duperault of Hallowell is a master’s degree student and recently completed a report summarizing vernal pool regulations of the northeastern states.


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