Wetlands Ecology and Management

Protecting vernal pools: a model from Massachusetts, USA

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Courtesy of Wetlands Ecology and Management

Ephemeral ponded wetlands, often referred to as vernal pools in the wetland’s lexicon of the northeastern United States, are in need of protection from outright loss, catastrophic alteration, and disruption of natural processes in the surrounding landscape, because of their great importance to a characteristic wildlife fauna. The state of Massachusetts, USA provides a useful model for vernal pool protection. Vernal pools have been specifically protected under state wetlands regulations since 1987 and many of the state’s municipalities have added additional, more stringent protection under local wetland bylaws. Some vernal pools are also protected under federal wetlands protection law. The protection of vernal pools in Massachusetts is based on a certification process in which biological data are collected to demonstrate that a wetland provides vernal pool functions. Once certified, and if a pool meets jurisdictional requirements, regulatory restrictions are placed on development and other activities proposed within the pool. The regulatory protection for vernal pools in Massachusetts has resulted in the prevention of outright loss and degradation of many vernal pools across the state. However, a 2001 US Supreme Court decision, referred to as the SWANCC decision, may result in a loss of federal jurisdiction over many vernal pools, protection that is especially valuable for pools that do not meet state regulatory criteria. Of significant importance is a lack of protection in existing regulations of the upland non-breeding habitat surrounding vernal pools, which has been shown to be of critical importance to the animals that rely on the pools. Despite the shortcomings of the regulatory protection model in Massachusetts, it has been especially effective as a catalyst for environmental and wildlife awareness, public participation in the wetlands regulatory process, and as an extremely valuable tool in environmental education and outreach.

Keywords: Amphibian breeding habitat - Massachusetts - Regulation - Regulatory protection - Vernal pool

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