CUMBERLAND — The Cumberland Lands and Conservation Commission is looking for volunteers to assist an ongoing survey to identify the town’s significant vernal pools.

Paul Weiss, a member of the commission and coordinator of the project, said the project began last spring and benefited from a grant through the National Audubon Society and the Toyota automobile company. The grant paid for aerial photography and three-dimensional computer analysis of vernal pools in 13 Maine towns, Weiss said.

The bodies identified through the photography were considered legally potential vernal pools. Whether they are actually significant vernal pools is being determined through the survey, a process that would have to occur on those properties prior to any land transaction or development.

“The process we did would (otherwise) have to be done by a private contractor,” if there was any kind of status change to the land, such as being sold or developed, Weiss said. “So (the commission’s survey) could really save any of the landowners or the town – which owns land, too – a lot of money.”

“It’s a great service to them to get it done for free,” he added.

About 250 potential pools were found. The survey has so far determined that 33 meet the state’s significant vernal pool qualification, while 47 do not. Data from 44 other visited sites has yet to be analyzed.

The town and commission sent out letters to all landowners with potential pools, asking them to allow surveyors to visit their properties.

Survey volunteers attended two, 2- to 3-hour training sessions. This year’s outdoor and indoor sessions are planned for early April.

The commission did not have the manpower to survey all the pools last spring, so it plans to handle the rest this spring. The surveys are timed to coincide with the existence of egg masses in the pools. Last year, the third week of April was optimal for surveying the presence of wood frogs and the second week in May for salamanders.

Vernal pools are the main breeding habitat for wood frogs, fairy shrimp and spotted and blue-spotted salamanders, as well as several endangered and threatened species. The presence of at least 10 blue-spotted salamander egg masses indicates a significant vernal pool, as well as 20 or more spotted salamander and 40 or more wood frog egg masses. The presence of fairy shrimp in any life stage also indicates a significant vernal pool.

Maine’s definition of vernal pools excludes pools that are man-made, have a permanent flowing outlet or inlet, have viable populations of predatory fish and are permanent ponds. The state only regulates those bodies that meet the definition of a significant vernal pool as a major wildlife habitat. The protected area also includes the essential terrestrial habitat reaching 250 feet around the pool.

While there will be some vernal pools found near existing houses, Weiss said, vernal pool regulations are intended to help to protect vernal pools in future land use.

Species will typically return to the same pool each year to breed, Weiss said.

“That’s one of the reasons why protection’s so important,” he explained. “If you destroy a vernal pool, it’s going to be years of killing a lot of animals that are dependent upon it for multiple years to come.”

People interested in volunteering can reach Weiss at 829-4626 or [email protected].

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or [email protected].

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