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- For information on Wisconsin's natural communities, contact:
- Ryan O'Connor
Natural Heritage Inventory Assistant Ecologist
State Rank: S2 Global Rank: GNR
General natural community overview
Sand prairie is a dry native grassland community dominated by grasses such as little bluestem, J junegrass, panic grasses, and poverty-oat grass. Common herbaceous associates are sand cress, field sage-wort, western ragweed, several sedges (e.g., Carex muhlenbergii, Cyperus filiculmis, and Cyperus schweinitzii), flowering spurge, frostweed, round-headed bush-clover, western sunflower, false-heather, long-bearded hawkweed, stiff goldenrod, horsebalm, and spiderwort. Drought-adapted fungi, lichens, and mosses are significant components of sand prairie communities.
At least some stands classified as sand prairie are oak or pine barrens remnants that now lack appreciable woody cover. Extensive stands may have occurred historically on broad sand terraces bordering the Mississippi, Wisconsin, Black, and Chippewa Rivers. Sand prairie may be more prevalent now in some areas than it was in historical times. Failed attempts to farm many of these prairies created blowouts, and may have even reactivated small dunes once the prairie sod was removed. We have included the ‘sand barrens' community described by Curtis (1959) with this type.
Natural Heritage Inventory description 1
This dry grassland community is composed of little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), panic grass (Panicum spp.), and crab grass (Digitaria cognata). Common herbaceous species are western ragweed (Ambrosia psilostachya), the sedges (Carex muhlenbergii and C. pensylvanica), poverty-oat grass (Danthonia spicata), flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), frostweed (Helianthemum canadense), common bush-clover (Lespedeza capitata), false-heather (Hudsonia tomentosa), long-bearded hawkweed (Hieracium longipilum), stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida), horsebalm (Monarda punctata), and spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis). At least some stands are Barrens remnants now lacking appreciable woody cover, though extensive stands may have occurred historically on broad level terraces along the Mississippi, Wisconsin, Black, and Chippewa Rivers.
1. Please see the printable version of the NHI Natural Community descriptions.
Suggested citation: Epstein, E.J., E.J. Judziewicz, and E.A. Spencer. 2002. Wisconsin Natural Community Abstracts. Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Endangered Resources, Madison, WI.
Species of Greatest Conservation Need
The following Species of Greatest Conservation Need are listed according to their level of association with the Sand Prairie natural community type, based on the findings in the Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan.
|Brown Thrasher||Toxostoma rufum||3|
|Field Sparrow||Spizella pusilla||3|
|Grasshopper Sparrow||Ammodramus savannarum||3|
|Lark Sparrow||Chondestes grammacus||3|
|Vesper Sparrow||Pooecetes gramineus||3|
|Bell's Vireo||Vireo bellii||2|
|Eastern Meadowlark||Sturnella magna||2|
|Loggerhead Shrike||Lanius ludovicianus||2|
|Northern Flicker||Colaptes auratus||2|
|Upland Sandpiper||Bartramia longicauda||2|
|Western Meadowlark||Sturnella neglecta||2|
|Blue-winged Teal||Anas discors||1|
|Greater Prairie-Chicken||Tympanuchus cupido||1|
|Northern Bobwhite||Colinus virginianus||1|
|Northern Harrier||Circus cyaneus||1|
|Short-eared Owl||Asio flammeus||1|
|Willow Flycatcher||Empidonax traillii||1|
|Franklin's Ground Squirrel||Spermophilus franklinii||3|
|Least Shrew||Cryptotis parva||3|
|Prairie Vole||Microtus ochrogaster||3|
|Western Harvest Mouse||Reithrodontomys megalotis||3|
|White-tailed Jackrabbit||Lepus townsendii||3|
|Reptiles and Amphibians||Score|
|Gray Ratsnake||Pantherophis spiloides||1|
Please see the Wildlife Action Plan, Chapter 2.4 to learn how this information was developed.
Rare plants associated with Sand Prairie
The Natural Heritage Inventory has developed scores indicating the degree to which each of Wisconsin's rare plant species is associated with a particular natural community or ecological landscape. This information is similar to that found in the Wildlife Action Plan for animals. As this is a work in progress, we welcome your suggestions and feedback.
|Scientific Name||Common Name||Score|
|Anemone caroliniana||Carolina Anemone||3|
|Artemisia frigida||Prairie Sagebrush||3|
|Asclepias lanuginosa||Woolly Milkweed||2|
|Aster fragilis var. subdumosus||Fragile-stemmed Aster||1|
|Calylophus serrulatus||Yellow Evening Primrose||3|
|Cirsium hillii||Hill's Thistle||2|
|Commelina erecta var. deamiana||Narrow-leaved Dayflower||3|
|Dalea villosa var. villosa||Silky Prairie-clover||3|
|Diodia teres var. teres||Buttonweed||3|
|Juncus marginatus||Grassleaf Rush||2|
|Nothocalais cuspidata||Prairie False-dandelion||2|
|Opuntia fragilis||Brittle Prickly-pear||3|
|Orobanche fasciculata||Clustered Broomrape||2|
|Orobanche ludoviciana||Louisiana Broomrape||3|
|Orobanche uniflora||One-flowered Broomrape||2|
|Penstemon pallidus||Pale Beardtongue||3|
|Polanisia jamesii||James' Cristatella||2|
|Prenanthes aspera||Rough Rattlesnake-root||1|
|Senecio plattensis||Prairie Ragwort||2|
|Senna marilandica||Maryland Senna||2|
|Strophostyles leiosperma||Small-flowered Woolly Bean||2|
The following Ecological Landscapes have the best opportunities to manage for Sand Prairie, based on the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin Handbook.
|Central Sand Plains||Major|
|Western Coulee and Ridges||Major|
|Central Sand Hills||Important|
|Southeast Glacial Plains||Present|
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.
Threats / Actions
These threats and priority conservation actions were identified for the Sand Prairie 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
- This community type is fragile and can be easily damaged.
- Off-road vehicle use can damage sensitive vegetation and aid the spread of invasive plants.
- At sites that were either part of or adjacent to barrens complexes, the removal of all tree cover is not necessarily desirable, as that can cause excessive desiccation, the loss of organic matter, and remove habitat niches needed by certain animals.
- Lack of fire and the encroachment of woody plants can be a problem, but fire frequency and severity should be planned carefully especially at excessively dry sites.
- Small, isolated sites are vulnerable to species loss, which can be permanent unless extreme measures such as reintroduction are taken.
- Invasive plants such as leafy spurge, cypress spurge, and spotted knapweed are major threats.
- Conversion to pine plantations has been common in some areas, and in addition to replacing an already rare native community type, the conversion can damage or destroy prairie vegetation, isolate the remnant prairie patches, and contribute to fragmentation of the formerly contiguous grassy openings.
- Conservation activities should be incorporated into the management of other grasslands, surrogate prairie grasslands, barrens, and other open habitats where possible.
- Restoration is now occurring on some public lands, mostly in central and southwestern Wisconsin.
- Synthesize existing information that has been collected for this type in Wisconsin and other parts of the upper Midwest, and make it accessible to managers.
- Use prescribed burning as a tool to manage these sites, following guidelines developed specifically for sand prairies and the fire-sensitive species that are dependent on or strongly associated with this community.
- Protect sensitive areas from off-road vehicles.
- Continue to support research to find effective biocontrols for invasive plants; control the spread of new invasives by limiting activities that facilitate their spread where possible.
The following are additional considerations for Sand Prairie in Ecological Landscapes with opportunities for protection, restoration, and/or management. For more information, see the Wildlife Action Plan, sections 3.3.1 - 3.3.9.
Central Sand Hills
The few sites documented are small and isolated. Grazing has been, and is, a problem, as is the planting of conifers. Additional survey work is desirable in this Ecological Landscape to identify high quality sand prairie remnants.
Central Sand Plains
Limited restoration is occurring on public lands such as Dike 17 State Wildlife Area within the Black River State Forest (Jackson County), Sandhill State Wildlife Area (Wood County), and Mirror Lake State Park (Sauk County). At these sites, the restoration of sand prairie is occurring in conjunction with efforts to restore oak and pine barrens communities.
Western Coulee and Ridges
Opportunities to manage or restore this type exist on the broad sand terraces of the Mississippi, Wisconsin, Chippewa, and Black Rivers. Conversion to pine plantations has occurred at many locations. Farming was attempted at some locations and generally failed. Residential development is rapidly encroaching on sand prairie habitat near urban population centers. Restoration is occurring at the following sites: Lower Chippewa River State Natural Area (Buffalo, Dunn, and Pepin Counties), Dunnville Wildlife Area (Dunn County), Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge (Trempealeau County), Fort McCoy Military reservation (Monroe County), Blue River Sand Barrens and Dunes State Natural Area (Iowa County), Schluckebier Sand Prairie (Sauk County), Lone Rock Sand Prairie, and Spring Green Preserve.
Opportunities are limited and appear to be confined to terraces or steep bluffs associated with the St. Croix River and its major tributaries. Additional survey work is needed to document the sites with the highest conservation value.
Sand Prairie Photos
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.