FREEPORT — Volunteers in 13 towns from Scarborough to Orono are participating in a statewide project to map vernal pools in their communities.

The Maine Vernal Pool Mapping Project will help determine the location, size and significance of vernal pools for town planning offices.

The state passed legislation in 2007 to protect vernal pools under the Natural Resource Protection Act, but this is the first time the pools will be recorded, providing towns with the locations and significance of the pools.

Starting a few weeks ago, volunteers in Yarmouth, Falmouth, Freeport, Cumberland, Scarborough, Brunswick and Topsham have been trained to find and identify the pools that occur in shallow depressions and provide the primary breeding habitat for wood frogs, spotted and blue-spotted salamanders, fairy shrimp and numerous insects adapted to temporary, fish-less waters. They also provide important feeding and resting areas for other animals, including several of the state’s rare and endangered species.

Volunteers use aerial photographs to map possible vernal pools, then find them and assess egg masses in order to deem them significant. A classification of a significant vernal pool habitat would include the pool itself and the area within a 250-foot radius around the pool’s high-water mark.

Gene Weiner, a volunteer coordinator in Freeport, said he has enjoyed his time on the project. He said he worked in the wildlife management field for 33 years in Pennsylvania, experience he sees as a good fit for the volunteer work.

“Getting back into this work is really fun,” he said. “I’m all for protecting the environment and identifying the natural resources out there.”

Weiner said out of the nine vernal pools his team was assigned to locate and identify, six were significant.

Making this identification will mean that greater restrictions will be placed around the pools, and the land around the area will be protected.

Some of the vernal pools Weiner and his team have identified are very small, he said, about the size of a living room. Others he said can be as large as a half an acre.

Some land owners have said vernal pools deemed significant by the state could potentially devalue land by restricting use and development. But classification also informs landowners of the changes to their property. A significant vernal pool classification would require additional permitting to develop, but does not prevent development, officials say.

While most of the coordinators have backgrounds in field biology and are members of local land trusts and conservation commissions, some are real estate agents, bankers and business owners.

Yarmouth volunteer coordinator Annie Simpson, a retired banker with an interest in ecology, town lands and public property, said some land owners may feel as if a significant vernal pool classification would increase the land value.

“I think it is fun and unique to know the vernal pools are on the land,” she said. “It is not as onerous as some believe. There is room for both human growth and conserving and preserving our wildlife.”

Assistant Planner Rod Melanson said Topsham residents have about 70 to 80 pools to assess. He said he was most impressed with the number of land owners involved.

“There were a lot of interested land owners who wanted information about the process,” he said. “There are definitely folks who do not agree with it, but it has been well received overall.”

Melanson said as a town planner he appreciates the study because it will provide additional information for planning purposes. But he said the vernal pools are also an important link to ecosystems.

“Some people may view them as just puddles, but they are so vital to the forest and the landscape,” he said. “It has been a big eye-opener to a lot of folks.”

Dave Santillo of Yarmouth is a biologist and a volunteer coordinator. He has a background in wildlife surveys and said he is impressed with the number of volunteers participating in the study.

“Volunteers are bringing their children to the trainings and teaching them about vernal pools in the field,” he said. “The whole process has been eye opening to for many people.”

The study was started with funding from the TogetherGreen initiative, a national project of the Audubon Society and Toyota. A $47,000 grant provided participating towns with up to $8,000 in services from Audubon and the University of Maine.

Project coordinator Aram Calhoun, an associate professor of wetlands ecology at the University of Maine, said the mapping project is not trying to regulate people’s property, but to proactively assess the vernal pools.

“This is another natural resource for planning departments, another piece of a data layer for the town,” she said. “Identifying a vernal pool on the property does not mean the land cannot be developed. All that’s needed is a permit.”

Now that the wood frog egg mass identification is almost complete, volunteers must move on to identify the salamander egg masses.

Weiner said he is looking forward to getting back out in the field.

“I’ve made new friends and am having so much fun with this,” he said. “This project gives me a chance to get back in the woods.”

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110, or [email protected].

filed under: