Big Night’s Bigger Picture

To UMaine grad students, Big Night in Bridgton is a big deal.

Big Night is as big in Orono as it is in Bridgton, but for a different reason. “I have a research program,” says Aram Calhoun, professor of Wetlands Ecology and director of the Ecology & Environmental Sciences Program at UMaine. “That’s a key night when my graduate students are out.”

Students collect amphibians for study, and in some cases outfit them with tiny radio transmitters before releasing them. “We’ve followed them around in the forest to see what habitats they use, where they hibernate, where they spend the summer,” Calhoun says. “They travel much further than one would think. We’ve [documented] frogs traveling more than 400 meters from a breeding pool.” (Presumably they could go even farther if they weren’t lugging transmitters.)

Also, unlike Big Night activities in Bridgton, which raise awareness of the immediate threat to amphibians during road crossings, the UMaine studies are focused on the need to protect breeding areas. Vernal pools—seasonal bodies of water fed by snowmelt and spring rains—don’t support fish and other predators, making them vital to amphibians’ survival. And because amphibians have “natal fidelity,” meaning that more than 90 percent return to their native pools each year, development of wetlands can have catastrophic effects on local populations. (Calhoun has heard of frogs laying their eggs in parking lots where their vernal pools once were.)

“We’ve helped craft legislation for [protecting] significant vernal pools,” Calhoun says. And although there has been some opposition from developers, Calhoun says the current legislation covers less than 20 percent of vernal pools in Maine and “has never stopped a permit.”

Calhoun says her goal is pragmatic: “We’re trying to come up with a creative solution to conserve vernal pools at the local level while not jeopardizing economic development.”

The effort requires cooperation among developers, lawyers, town planners, biologists, economists, and state and federal regulators. “We’ve all come to an agreement on this concept,” Calhoun says. ‘Now we’re just working out the details.”

If the effort is successful, says Calhoun, the results could serve as a model “for all towns that have to deal with natural-resource regulations.”

Which means that Big Night could be a big night indeed.