Using vernal pools to study natural resource management issues

researchers with mapConserving Natural Resources at the Community Scale: Using population persistence of vernal pool fauna as a model system to understand how communities can address natural resource management issues such as urbanization, climate change and forest management

Institution: University of Maine
Sponsor: National Science Foundation through the Sustainability Solutions Initiative

Many Maine communities are facing the same dilemma: how to maintain economic viability without compromising the ecological integrity of natural resources that attract people to Maine. Aram Calhoun, UMaine professor of wetland ecology, is leading an SSI research team that uses local vernal pool conservation as a model to help communities find ways to balance economic development with natural resource conservation on private land.

Why This Project?

Vernal pools are seasonal wetlands that provide critical breeding habitat for wood frogs and spotted and blue-spotted salamanders—and help sustain a wide range of wildlife. These wetlands also are relevant to town planning, because Maine state law regulates development within 250 feet of “significant” vernal pools.

The “one-size-fits-all” nature of the regulation, however, does not provide sufficient flexibility to guide development activities and protect vernal pool habitat in the most cost-effective ways. At the same time, towns and landowners must make land-use decisions amid uncertainty about meeting the vernal pool law, potential economic impacts, and other unknowns.

Connecting Knowledge with Action

Calhoun’s team is working with two of the dozen-plus Maine towns that have participated in the Vernal Pools Mapping and Assessment Project to develop model solutions that allow regulatory flexibility and help communities plan development in ways that benefit people and wildlife alike.

The researchers also are addressing stakeholder concerns and key questions including: better understanding the economic impact of vernal pool conservation on landowners and town economies, identifying barriers to conservation on private land, and filling in knowledge gaps in amphibian ecology.

The team’s findings will provide valuable data to help communities conserve natural resources, guide development and reduce uncertainty for landowners. Ultimately, findings will inform management policies that address the economic concerns of Maine citizens while conserving significant vernal pools, crucial habitat and the amphibians and other wildlife that rely on these important places. In addition, this research will contribute to broader principles that can be applied to sustainable ecosystem management.

Update on the Research

SSI researchers at the University of Maine are investigating new ways to help communities balance economic development and natural resource protection using local vernal pool conservation as a model. Led by Aram Calhoun, UMaine professor of wetland ecology, the team has made progress in several areas including:

New guide to help towns identify and map vernal pools. This spring, Calhoun and her research associate Dawn Morgan published The Maine Municipal Guide to Mapping and Conserving Vernal Pool Resources. The guide provides guidance to municipalities wanting to proactively map their vernal pools and covers topics ranging from vernal pool ecology to training citizen scientists in identifying and assessing vernal pools.

Innovative mechanisms to adapt regulations to local needs. UMaine associate professor of economics Kathleen Bell, PhD candidate Vanessa Levesque, Morgan and Calhoun are working with two Maine towns and state and federal regulatory agencies to create model mechanisms that would relax vernal pool protection in growth zones in exchange for greater protection of pools and associated habitat in rural areas. If successful, this approach could give communities more flexibility in finding ways to balance development and conservation.

Understanding links between land use and amphibian post-breeding habitat. PhD student Britt Cline is working with UMaine wildlife ecology professor Mac Hunter to determine how suburban development, agriculture and forestry affect the dispersal of juvenile wood frogs, which are key to sustaining healthy populations. Findings will help address challenges ranging from seasonal land management practices to improving vernal pool buffers that better connect and protect crucial habitat for pool breeding amphibians.

New insight into wood frog ecology in an unstudied landscape. PhD student Luke Groff is investigating wood frog habitat selection in Maine’s interior mountains. Preliminary results suggest that wood frogs in this wetland-limited and rugged landscape travel greater distances between breeding and non-breeding areas, and also hibernate at greater depths, than their counterparts in southern and downeast Maine. This research will contribute to our ecological understanding of pool-breeding amphibians, and better inform Maine’s vernal pool policy stakeholders.

Over the next year, the team will continue to conduct ecological research on pool breeding amphibians and economic and policy analyses of vernal pool regulations. Their findings will help municipal officials in Maine tailor these regulations to better meet local needs provide a model for other communities seeking solutions to similar sustainability challenges.

Team Members

Graduate Students

  • Brittany Cline (WLE)
  • Luke Groff (WLE)
  • Vanessa Levesque (WLE, SOE)
  • Kris Hoffman (WLE)

Post-doctoral Researcher
Krista Capps (SSI)

Project Partners
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Maine Department of Environmental Protection
Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
Town of Topsham
Town of Orono


Supported by National Science Foundation award EPS-0904155 to Maine EPSCoR at the University of Maine.