Vernal pools are small, often isolated, forested depressions that generally fill with water following spring rains and snowmelt, and then seemingly disappear during the dry months of summer. Vernal pools have no permanent predatory fish populations, thus providing the primary breeding habitat for several species of fishless pond specialists, including Maine's primary vernal pool indicator species: spotted salamanders, blue-spotted salamanders, wood frogs, and fairy shrimp. Vernal pools also provide valuable habitat for other wildlife including several of Maine's rare and endangered species including Blanding's turtle (Endangered), spotted turtle (Threatened), wood turtle (Special Concern), ribbon snake (Special Concern), four-toed salamander (Special Concern), and the elusive ringed-boghaunter dragonfly (Endangered).
The ecological functions of vernal pools are intimately dependent on the integrity of the surrounding upland forest. Leaf, branch, and other decaying plant material from the adjacent forest fuel a vernal pool's food chain. Because of their generally small, defined watersheds, vernal pool water quality is strongly influenced by the effects of land-use in the immediate vicinity. Furthermore, Maine's vernal pool amphibians and endangered species regularly make use of forested upland habitat abutting vernal pools to complete their life needs, often at great distances from the pools themselves. Vernal pool amphibians and reptiles require several hundred feet of mostly undisturbed upland habitat surrounding the pool basin to ensure their continued existence. As such, it is probably more appropriate to refer to the intact forest surrounding most vernal pools as a "life zone" rather than a "buffer zone". For all these reasons, it is important to leave an area of intact natural vegetation around the pool for as great a distance as possible.
We still have more to learn about why some vernal pools receive greater wildlife use than others. To this end, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) has encouraged and supported several recent studies. Grants from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency helped support a recently completed University of Maine study by Dr. Robert Baldwin and Dr. Aram Calhoun to research the wildlife use and characteristics of vernal pools in four southern Maine townships - Falmouth, Biddeford, Kennebunkport, and North Berwick. Their results confirm that wood frogs and other pool-breeding amphibians range widely in the forested landscape following breeding and that surrounding upland forests and shallow forested swamps provide important foraging, migration, and over-wintering habitat that is functionally connected to the pools themselves. Dr. Baldwin also developed a landscape model highlighting the vulnerability of vernal pools to rapid development in southern Maine due to insufficient conservation lands and wetland regulatory protections.
At this time, MDIFW is actively working with cooperators at University of Maine and Maine Audubon Society to promote voluntary protection measures for this valuable wetland habitat. Workshops on vernal pools have been held throughout the state and several publications describing the resource are now available to the public. A vernal pool fact sheet, describing threats and management considerations, is available upon request from MDIFW for use by landowners, municipalities, and land trusts. In 2003, a Maine Citizen's Guide to Locating and Documenting Vernal Pools was updated and republished in cooperation with Maine Audubon and University of Maine and is currently available from MDIFW (207-287-8000). Following extensive input from experts in Maine's wildlife and forest management community, a new document entitled Forestry Habitat Management Guidelines for Vernal Pool Wildlife was published in 2004 by the Wildlife Conservation Society and is now available from Maine Audubon (207-781-2330, ext. 222) and MDIFW. A companion document for developed landscapes, Best Development Practices: Conserving Pool-Breeding Amphibians in Residential and Commercial Developments in the Northeastern United States, is also available from Maine Audubon. Collectively, these publications provide techniques for identifying high-value vernal pools and specific recommendations for their conservation.
Finally, MDIFW recently participated in a state vernal pool-working group organized by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for the purpose of developing a definition of significant vernal pools, a
Significant Wildlife Habitat designated by the state's Natural Resource Protection Act (NRPA). The scientific criteria for designating "significant" vernal pools include a) presence of a state Endangered or Threatened species, or b) evidence of exceptional breeding abundance by one or more pool-breeding amphibians. The definition includes a 250-foot "critical terrestrial habitat" area around the pool. Designating a subset of the state's vernal pools as "significant" will help MDIFW and DEP provide regulatory guidance on development activities within a critical
upland life zone surrounding this important wildlife habitat. Following public hearings during the fall of 2005, MDIFW adopted the definition of a significant vernal pool and the state's Board of Environmental Protection unanimously
adopted the new rules for significant vernal pools. Both agencies will be reporting back to the Legislature in 2006 for the final consideration of proposed changes to NRPA by the Joint Standing Committee on Natural Resources. MDIFW's work with vernal pools is made possible by support from Maine's Loon Conservation Plate, Chickadee Check-off funds, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund.
Like many aquatic organisms, mussels are very sensitive to contaminants and changes in their environment. This vulnerability is compounded by their specific habitat and fish host requirements, and by an inability to leave their surroundings. Consequently, freshwater mussels are one of our most valuable indicators of water quality and ecosystem health. They are also one of the most imperiled groups of animals in North America. Of the nearly 300 species of freshwater mussels found in the United States, approximately half have already vanished or are in danger of extinction. These dramatic declines have been caused largely by the degradation and loss of mussel habitat from pollution, dams and other water control structures, channelization, dredging, and the sedimentation of our once clean, free-flowing rivers and streams. In addition, poaching of shells for sale to the Orient's pearl culture industry, and the recent invasion of a prolific foreign competitor, the zebra mussel, are also jeopardizing many mussel populations. Too late for some species, efforts to maintain habitat quality and prevent further loss have now become a high priority for many state, federal, and private conservation agencies.
In Maine, our freshwater mussel fauna has fared relatively better than that of many states. We have not lost any species, our freshwater habitats are reasonably clean or have improved in water quality, and the zebra mussel has not yet found its way into our waterways. We are not immune, however, to the problems of habitat loss and degradation that have eliminated populations and extirpated species in other parts of the country. Of our ten native species, two are currently listed as "threatened" under the Maine Endangered Species Act and three are considered of "special concern". Fortunately, compared to most states within the range of these five species, Maine seems to have some of the best remaining populations and may be a last stronghold for these rare mussels.
Since the early 1990s, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) has been actively involved in research and conservation programs for the State's freshwater mussels. In the beginning, very little was known about mussels in Maine. Since then, however, MDIFW biologists have surveyed over 1700 sites statewide to document the distribution and abundance of our ten native species. As a result, two species - the yellow lampmussel and tidewater mucket - were state-listed as threatened in 1997. Three additional species - the brook floater, creeper, and triangle floater - were listed as special concern. MDIFW frequently works with other state and federal agencies, as well as with landowners, consultants, conservation groups, and others, to ensure these rare mussels are considered during projects that may negatively affect them or their habitat.
In 2001, MDIFW joined forces with scientists and students at the University of Maine in Orono to begin learning even more about Maine's rarest mussels. Of four research projects to date, two have been focused on identifying the specific fish host(s) for Maine's two threatened mussel species: one using laboratory propagation of glochidia, and the other using DNA analysis of glochidia found on wild-caught fish. The identification of host species is a critical component of understanding the life history and conservation needs of freshwater mussels. Without access to the appropriate hosts, most freshwater mussels cannot successfully reproduce. And without knowledge of host requirements, MDIFW and other resource managers cannot ensure native fish communities provide for the needs of rare mussels.
A third study looked at conservation genetics of the yellow lampmussel and tidewater mucket. Understanding the relationships within and between watersheds where these two threatened species occur can be a useful tool in determining the appropriate conservation and management measures for individual populations - particularly when relocation of mussels is necessary. Finally, a fourth research project is investigating the effects of dam removal and mussel relocation on the yellow lampmussel and tidewater mucket. Proposals to remove both small and large hydro-power dams are becoming increasingly common in Maine, yet we have no way of knowing what the long-term effects will be on these two rare species - both of which are found in impoundments. When a dam is removed where rare mussels are present, the only conservation tool available to MDIFW biologists at this time is to move or relocate the stranded mussels to new habitat. However, until this study, we've had no data to let us know if our efforts are successful, or if we need to change or improve our relocation techniques.
Additional information about the status and results of all of these studies can be found in MDIFW's 2004 and 2005 Wildlife Division Research and Management Reports at www.maine.gov/ifw/wildlife/wildlife.htm. You can learn more about Maine's freshwater mussels by reading "The Freshwater Mussels of Maine" by Nedeau et al. This comprehensive, yet easy to understand book is available through MDIFW's Information Center in Augusta (207-287-8000) or On-line Bookstore (www.informe.org/ifw/merc/) and costs just $10.
MDIFW's work on freshwater mussels has been made possible by funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and University of Maine; and by the generosity of Maine citizens through their
support of Maine's "Loon License Plate" program, "Outdoor Heritage Fund" lottery ticket, and state income tax "Chickadee Checkoff". Thank you!
"declares that the State's rivers and streams, great ponds, fragile mountain areas, freshwater wetlands, significant wildlife habitat, coastal wetlands and coastal sand dune systems are resources of state significance. These resources have great scenic beauty and unique characteristics, unsurpassed recreational, cultural, historical and environmental value of present and future benefit to the citizens of the State and that uses are causing the rapid degradation and, in some cases, the destruction of these critical resources, producing significant adverse economic and environmental impacts and threatening the health, safety and general welfare of the citizens of the State."
As a result of passage of the NRPA, a permit is required when an "activity" will be:
--Located in, on or over any protected natural resource, orAn "activity" is (A) dredging, bulldozing, removing or displacing soil, sand, vegetation or other materials; (B) draining or otherwise dewatering; (C) filling, including adding sand or other material to a sand dune; or (D) any construction, repair or alteration of any permanent structure.
Through Public Law 116 (LD 261) the 122nd Maine State Legislature will be considering changes to the Natural Resource Protection Act this winter as requested by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) in 2005. Maine Audubon also sponsored a companion bill to DEP's version. The statutory requirement for MDIFW to proactively map significant vernal pools, shorebird, and wading & waterfowl habitats and DEP to formally adopt the maps may be removed and these habitats then would be treated as we do any other wetland. This legislative action required that the DEP first establish definitions and standards through rule for significant vernal pools, shorebird feeding, nesting, and staging habitat, and high to moderate value wading and waterfowl habitat. Simultaneous to this rulemaking process, MDIFW was also required to go through it's own rule-making process to adopt identical definitions and criteria for these three significant wildlife habitats. Both agencies have completed this rule-making process and will be reporting back to the Legislature in 2006 for the final consideration of proposed changes to NRPA by the Joint Standing Committee on Natural Resources.
To be regulated under the original version of NRPA, significant wildlife habitats have to be identified and mapped in a specific location by MDIFW. DEP would then have to adopt these maps through rulemaking. No additional resources were allocated to MDIFW to accomplish mapping of significant wildlife habitats and the costs have proved prohibitive. To date, the two Departments have adopted only seabird nesting island maps.
When the NRPA was enacted in August 1988, it included protection for significant wildlife habitat, which was defined in the law to the "extent such areas were mapped or within another protected natural resource." Significant wildlife habitat includes the following:
* habitat, as defined by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, for species appearing on the official state or federal lists of endangered or threatened animal species;With the changes being implemented, it will no longer necessary to go through the mapping requirement to regulate vernal pools, shorebird feeding, nesting, and staging habitat, and high to moderate value wading and waterfowl habitat. What these three types of wildlife habitat have in common is that they are all wetland-based, and target species rely heavily on associated wetland or upland habitat management areas. Definitions for these habitats recently adopted by MDIFW and DEP will guide the identification of the habitats on the ground for regulation. Please see the following DEP web site for details on process to Amend Chapters 335, Significant Wildlife Habitat, and amend Chapter 375, Section 15, Protection of Wildlife and Fisheries http://www.maine.gov/dep/blwq/rule.htm
By making these changes related to significant wildlife habitat in NRPA, we will increase consistency in how the DEP and IF&W regulate wetlands of special significance, making regulatory oversight more predictable, and
affording these state resources the protection we are directed to provide.
Working Behind the Scenes to Protect and Conserve Wildlife Habitat - Bangor Wildlife Habitat Group The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) has several public faces, some more visible than others. The members of the Warden Service are the most easily recognized Department staff, regional wildlife and fisheries biological staff interact with local landowners, hatcheries staff distribute fish to many locations throughout the state, and biologists from the Wildlife Resource Assessment Section (WRAS) in Bangor enter the limelight when species-specific (deer, moose, bald eagles, waterfowl, etc.) management issues attract attention. A less glamorous, but growing interface with the public is happening through distribution of MDIFW's wildlife habitat data. In this era of instant information, the public not only expects that we have digital data on wildlife habitat, but that it is readily available, comprehensive, current, and accurate (if it ain't Google-able, it ain't usable). Although this expectation may be unrealistic given the limitations of staff and resources, MDIFW regularly receives data requests from landowners, developers, conservation groups, industry members, the legislature, and other state and federal agencies. Putting wildlife habitat on today's technological playing field where the decisions shaping Maine's future landscape are being made is the job of MDIFW's WRAS Habitat Group.
We maintain data on "Essential Wildlife Habitats" (bald eagle nesting sites; piping plover/least tern nesting, feeding, and brood-rearing areas; and roseate tern nesting areas) under the Maine Endangered Species Act; "Significant Wildlife Habitats" (deer wintering areas, inland and tidal waterfowl and wading bird habitats, shorebird areas, and seabird nesting islands) under the Natural Resources Protection Act; and "Rare, Threatened, and Endangered (RTE) Species" data in the Natural Heritage network. Keeping these databases current and accurate requires constant updating, which involves both field work by Wildlife Division staff and incorporating new information available from other geographic information system (GIS) databases.
Then there is the task of making this important data available to decision-makers and the public. The Habitat Group maintains an Internet Mapping Service that allows Internet users to access our most current Essential Habitat data 24/7. The web page provides an interactive map showing the location of Essential Habitats on top of USGS topological maps. Users can search the state by township, query information about specific habitats, and print hard-copy maps. The web page is hosted by the Maine Office of GIS at http://www.state.me.us/ifw/wildlife/etweb/habitat/ims_welcome.htm.
Habitat Group staff is the operational arm of the high profile Beginning with Habitat program (a cooperative effort with Maine Natural Areas Program, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Maine Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, Maine State Planning Office, and other partners). Beginning with Habitat provides a set of 9 maps and supporting information about habitat resources to municipalities, land trusts, and other organizations to help guide conservation and landuse planning. Over the past 18 months, responsibility for producing these maps and handling requests for reprints, data CDs, and passwords to download digital map files have shifted solely to MDIFW. To help handle this increased workload, the Habitat Group has added a part-time Intern dedicated to Beginning with Habitat and will soon add a full-time Cartographer.
We also distribute coastal wildlife habitat data as part of planning for response to marine oil spills. Over 6 billion gallons of petroleum products are shipped into Maine each year. More oil passes Maine's coastline on ships traveling between refineries in St. John, New Brunswick and southern ports. The risk for a large oil spill with catastrophic consequences for coastal wildlife and their habitats is always present. Keeping MDIFW staff prepared to respond to a spill-which could involve recovering oiled wildlife, surveying affected habitats, documenting damage, and other responsibilities-is the job of Habitat Group's new Oil Spill Biologist, Nicole Munkwitz. Nicole coordinates our planning efforts with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Department of Marine Resources, the Department of Conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Nicole provides DEP with our wildlife habitat to map ecologically sensitive areas for developing prevention strategies to protect them in the event of a spill.
Since 1993, the only statewide landcover (habitat map of Maine) available was created by University of Maine GAP using satellite imagery from the early 1990s. Many areas of the state have changed significantly in the
ensuing 12 years. Starting in 2004, Habitat Group staff participated in a multi-agency effort to develop a new landcover map by helping select an imagery-analysis contractor and by collecting data from field sites for
generating and verifying the new map. As part of the contract, the state of Maine also received a map of impervious surfaces, which helps MDIFW biologists determine where development is occurring relative to wildlife
habitats and how that might affect water runoff. Expected delivery date of the final landcover map is January 2006.
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