Monitoring Vernal Pools: Citizen Science

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It's a chilly Saturday morning in late spring. But the long sunlit room of this Lorain County Metroparks visitors center is warm with the press of nearly a hundred people. They've come here from as far away as Columbus for an afternoon workshop put on by the Ohio Environmental Council and the Nature Conservancy. The day will culminate with a walk in the woods to see what they've all come to learn about - a special kind of wetland called vernal pools.

Vernal pools are temporary wetlands often tucked away in woodlots, small, shallow ponds that fill with winter snow melt and spring rains, then dry up by July. Like most wetlands, they're a magnet for biodiversity. Unlike most wetlands, they're not always visible to the visitor's eye or the developer's bulldozer. The folks here are going to learn how to identify and monitor them for a statewide database that may one day aid in their protection. First, they have to be mapped. Lesson number one - global positioning systems with Ohio EPA wetland ecologist Mike Micacchion.

Mike Micacchion: The more we know about the quality of these wetlands prior to getting a permit application or once we get one, then the better call we can make on the level of protection to provide. The thing that makes it valuable about using citizens is that there's many more people to go out and monitor and they can get to sites we would never have the time, staff to get to.

And Micacchion says wetlands protection can use all the help it can get. More than 90% of the state's marshes, bogs and fens have been lost to agriculture and development. John Katko, president of Friends of the Wetlands, says last year the state approved 100% of applications for permits to destroy wetlands.

John Katko: This is a way we could have citizen involvement that could facilitate Ohio EPA's program. You know, if they know that the vernal pools are there, then it would become more difficult for somebody to come in at night with a a bulldozer and say, we didn't know.

But the program is still a long way from fulfilling its mission. So far, vernal pools have been mapped in only eight of Ohio's 88 counties. The commitment required to do the work is daunting. But Naomi Yant, who drove two hours from Delaware County to be here, says she's prepared to give it a try.

Naomi Yant: We're very ignorant at this point and we're just starting to learn about it. And we're fascinated with it and we want to do something.

Many of these workshop participants are retirees. Not only will they have to hike through the woods in hip waders, carrying nets and notebooks and GPS units, they'll have to learn to identify fairy shrimp and chorus frogs and spotted salamanders. But John Katko believes this exercise in citizen science translates into something even more important.

John Katko: I think it's really scary that we are destroying a lot of the local natural areas that children can go to and explore the natural world and learn to love it and appreciate it. If you don't love it and appreciate it and know it, there's not much of a chance that you're going to defend it.

After three hours of lectures and discussion, it's finally time for a close-up look at a vernal pool. The dark water is skimmed with ice and dotted with leafless trees and shrubs. There's no sign yet of the thousands of salamanders, frogs and insects that will start coming here to breed in just a few weeks. But Deni Porej looks at the still, silent pond and sees something special. He's Science Director for the Nature Conservancy and founder of the Ohio vernal pools monitoring program.

Deni Porej: People don't know, they think, what do we have here? I don't have any anacondas, I don't have any jaguars. I mean, we've got these places. Eastern U.S. is the center for the world's biodiversity for salamanders. A woodlot in Ohio could have more salamanders than entire Europe combined. It's a lot.

Porej likens the annual migration of salamanders to those of caribou and wildebeests portrayed on popular TV nature programs. Every spring these silent creatures make the nighttime journey form their winter burrows to the vernal pools where they lay their eggs.

Deni Porej: You're standing at a pool and you see 600 salamanders coming out of the woods and going into the pond. And they've been doing that for 50 million years. How cool is that?

Deni Porej, John Katko and everyone else here thinks it's pretty cool. And now they have the tools they hope will help them protect these fragile remnants of Ohio's last wilderness. In Lorain County, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

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