For the past fifteen years, I have been involved in an effort to promote the ecological significance of vernal pools on the Cumberland Plateau. Vernal pools are small, ephemeral wetlands that act as distinct aquatic “islands” of biodiversity dispersed across the upland landscape of the region. Specifically, many amphibian species in the region are dependent on the maintenance of these pools within the surrounding terrestrial habitat in order to complete their complex life cycles. Because vernal pools are small in size (generally less than 0.5 ha), they are often overlooked in land management decisions, which means that wetland loss is coupled with forest loss in this region. It has been clear to me for a while that the critical first step in establishing protection for these pools was to generate a database that documented their existence and to evaluate how the wetlands are being impacted by changing land-use. My recent publication in the journal Wetlands, Widespread Degradation of a Vernal Pool Network in the Southeastern United States: Challenges to Current and Future Management, represents a culmination of this work. Co-authors on this paper are Kristen Cecala and David Haskell from Biology, Brett Scheffers (C’05) from University of Florida, Nick Hollingshead, my former manager of the Landscape Analysis Lab, Callie Oldfield (C’15) at University of Georgia and recent graduate Ben McKenzie (C’17).
Using high resolution, leaf-off imagery, we mapped the locations and surrounding forest cover of 2,399 vernal pools on the Cumberland Plateau across a 719,540 ha, three-state study area (Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia) and assessed habitat loss and conservation status. Most of pools (93%) were located on unprotected lands and only 37% of these pools had a native forest cover > 75% within a 300m buffer. Forest cover around pools steadily declined between 1981- 2010. In the absence of effective federal or state policies to protect the terrestrial and aquatic habitats associated with pools on private land, these wetlands will continue to become more disconnected and lose their ecological integrity within the landscape. This paper comes at a critical time for wetlands protection in this country. Under the 2015 Clean Water Rule produced by the EPA, our paper would help qualify this newly identified network of pools for special protection under the Clean Water Act. However, such future protection has been put in jeopardy by a recent EPA decision under the current administration to suspend and rescind the Clean Water Rule.