LRP - Licenses

LRP - Regulations

LRP - Permits

Recreation - Everyone

Recreation - Trapping

Recreation - Fishing

Recreation - Hunting

Education - Everyone

Education - Kids

Education - Educators

To sign up for updates or to access your subscriber preferences, please enter your contact information below.

Rare animals
Find rare and non-game animals.
Rare plants
Learn about plants on the Natural Heritage Working List.
Rare lichens
Discover Wisconsin's lichens.
Natural communities
Explore Wisconsin's natural communities.
Other features
Discover unique resources.
Contact information
For information on Wisconsin's natural communities, contact:
Ryan O'Connor
Natural Heritage Inventory Assistant Ecologist

Inland lakes


General natural community overview

Inland lakes are naturally occurring bodies of standing water with a huge diversity in size, configuration, water chemistry, and biota. Their surface area can range from less than one acre to over 137,000 acres and their depth can range from less than a foot to more than 230 feet. Glaciation, post-glacial water flow, soil characteristics, topography, bedrock composition, land cover, land use and other factors can all combine to determine the physical and chemical characteristics of any given lake. The concentration of glacial kettle lakes within the Northern Highlands Ecological Landscape is globally important. Some of the lake types there are rare, and support many rare organisms.

Natural lakes in Wisconsin frequently are classified by the source of water supply. Based on water source and outflows, four categories of lakes are commonly recognized:

•Drainage lakes - These lakes have both an inlet and outlet where the main water source is stream drainage. Most major rivers in Wisconsin have drainage lakes along their course. Drainage lakes owing one-half of their maximum depth to a dam are considered to be artificial lakes or impoundments (see Section for information regarding impoundments/reservoirs).

•Seepage lakes - These lakes do not have an inlet or an outlet, and only occasionally overflow. As landlocked waterbodies, the principal source of water is precipitation or runoff, supplemented by groundwater from the immediate drainage area. Since seepage lakes commonly reflect groundwater levels and rainfall patterns, water levels may fluctuate seasonally. Seepage lakes are the most common lake type in Wisconsin.

•Spring lakes - These lakes have no inlet, but do have an outlet. The primary source of water for spring lakes is groundwater flowing into the bottom of the lake from inside and outside the immediate surface drainage area. Spring lakes are the headwaters of many streams and are a fairly common type of lake in northern Wisconsin.

•Drained lakes - These lakes have no inlet, but like spring lakes, have a continuously flowing outlet. Drained lakes are not groundwater-fed. Their primary source of water is from precipitation and direct drainage from the surrounding land. Frequently, the water levels in drained lakes will fluctuate depending on the supply of water. Under severe conditions, the outlets from drained lakes may become intermittent. Drained lakes are the least common lake type found in Wisconsin.

Lakes vary based on physical characteristics, such as size, depth, configuration, chemical characteristics (such as soft versus hard water), water clarity, or the types of plant and animal life present. For example, Some lakes are almost perfectly round in shape whereas others are highly convoluted. Hard water lakes have higher levels of dissolved minerals such as calcium, iron and magnesium than soft water lakes. Some lakes, especially those near acidic wetlands such as bogs, are stained with tannic acid that leaches from surrounding vegetation. The water in these "tannin lakes" may range in color from a dark brown "coffee" color to light brown.

These waterbodies also vary greatly in fertility and clarity, with clearer, lower fertility lakes more common in northern Wisconsin. Large, fertile, southern Wisconsin lakes with stream inlets and outlets generally have the greatest variety of species. Most lakes are dominated by cool and warmwater fishes, particularly the family Centrarchidae (sunfishes).

Rare animals

Species of Greatest Conservation Need

Note: The information presented here comes from the 2005 Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan. The 2015 revision has been submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for approval. Our website content will be updated when the plan has been approved.

The following Species of Greatest Conservation Need are listed according to their level of association with the natural community type, based on the findings in Wisconsin's 2005 Wildlife Action Plan.

Scores: 3 = "significantly associated," 2 = "moderately associated," and 1 = "minimally associated."
Bald EagleHaliaeetus leucocephalus3
OspreyPandion haliaetus3
Black TernChlidonias niger2
Blue-winged TealAnas discors2
CanvasbackAythya valisineria2
Lesser ScaupAythya affinis2
Trumpeter SwanCygnus buccinator2
Common TernSterna hirundo1
Forster's TernSterna forsteri1
Horned GrebePodiceps auritus1

Scores: 3 = "significantly associated," 2 = "moderately associated," and 1 = "minimally associated."
MooseAlces alces3
Eastern Red BatLasiurus borealis2
Hoary BatLasiurus cinereus2
Northern Long-eared BatMyotis septentrionalis2
Silver-haired BatLasionycteris noctivagans2
Water ShrewSorex palustris2

Scores: 3 = "significantly associated," 2 = "moderately associated," and 1 = "minimally associated."
Reptiles and AmphibiansScore
Boreal Chorus FrogPseudacris maculata3
Mink FrogRana septentrionalis3
MudpuppyNecturus maculosus3
Northern Cricket FrogAcris crepitans3
Pickerel FrogRana palustris2

Scores: 3 = "significantly associated," 2 = "moderately associated," and 1 = "minimally associated."
Lake SturgeonAcipenser fulvescens3
Starhead TopminnowFundulus dispar3
Banded KillifishFundulus diaphanus2
Greater RedhorseMoxostoma valenciennesi2
Lake ChubsuckerErimyzon sucetta2
Least DarterEtheostoma microperca2
Longear SunfishLepomis megalotis2
Pugnose ShinerNotropis anogenus2
Redfin ShinerLythrurus umbratilis1

Please see the Wildlife Action Plan, Chapter 2.4 to learn how this information was developed.


Management Opportunities

The following Ecological Landscapes have the best opportunities to manage for , based on the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin Handbook.

Map of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin.

Major (3 on map)
A major opportunity for sustaining the natural community in the Ecological Landscape exists, either because many significant occurrences of the natural community have been recorded in the landscape or major restoration activities are likely to be successful maintaining the community's composition, structure, and ecological function over a longer period of time.

Important (2 on map)
Although the natural community does not occur extensively or commonly in the Ecological Landscape, one to several occurrences do occur and are important in sustaining the community in the state. In some cases, important opportunities may exist because the natural community may be restricted to just one or a few Ecological Landscapes within the state and there may be a lack of opportunities elsewhere.

Present (1 on map)
The natural community occurs in the Ecological Landscape, but better management opportunities appear to exist in other parts of the state.


Note: The information presented here comes from the 2005 Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan. The 2015 revision has been submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for approval. Our website content will be updated when the plan has been approved.

These threats and priority conservation actions were identified for the community type in Wisconsin, and they apply to all of Wisconsin's Ecological Landscapes unless otherwise indicated. Please see the Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan, Chapter 3.3 , for more information


  • Changing land use practices and resulting non-point source pollution from urban and agricultural runoff and other sources are leading to habitat loss, eutrophication, and increases in salinity.
  • Shoreline and littoral-zone alteration and development, as well as shallow-water motorized recreation, are degrading lake habitat.
  • Mercury bioaccumulation in fish poses a health risk to humans and other animals that eat fish, especially in waters with sediments that increase the rate of mercury methylization.
  • Exotic invasive plant and animal species (e.g., common carp, rainbow smelt, zebra mussel, rusty crayfish, Eurasian water-milfoil, curly pondweed, flowering rush) are degrading habitats, altering food webs and species interactions, and displacing native species. Other exotics, such as the parasite Heterosporis sp., are spreading to lakes across northeast Wisconsin, infecting yellow perch and other species.

Conservation actions

  • Improve watershed and riparian land-use practices to reduce non-point source pollution.
  • Protect and restore shoreline and littoral-zone habitat. Support shoreline research, education, and restoration conducted by lake districts, UW-Extension and other institutions, restoration consultants, and others.
  • Improve regulations and education regarding actions such as boat cleaning and disinfection to prevent the introduction of additional exotic species and slow the spread of existing populations of invasive species.
  • Continue to seek statewide and regional reductions in mercury emissions from key sources.




Wild rice and other aquatic plants fill the shallow south basin of this drainage lake. Resident animals include Bald Eagle, Osprey, Common Loon, and Black Tern.

Photo by Eric Epstein.


Aurora Lake is an undeveloped, shallow, softwater drainage lake that supports extensive beds of aquatic macrophytes. Aurora Lake State Natural Area, Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, Vilas County.

Photo by Thomas Meyer.


Seepage Lake, Langlade County.

Photo by Emmet Judziewicz.


Two seepage lakes with very different attributes: The lake in the foreground is shallow, muck-bottomed, and bordered by boggy wetlands; the other lake is deep, with a firm bottom, and has an upland shoreline. Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, Vilas County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.


Drainage lake. Border of Ashland Co.

Photo by Eric Epstein.


Unnamed bog lake near Crandon, Forest County.

Photo by W.A. Smith.


Photo by Thomas Meyer.

Note: photos are provided to illustrate various examples of natural community types. A single photograph cannot represent the range of variability inherent in a given community type. Some of these photos explicitly illustrate unusual and distinctive community variants. The community photo galleries are a work in progress that we will expand and improve in the future.

Last revised: Thursday, September 24, 2015