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Explore Wisconsin's natural communities.
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Contact information
For information on Wisconsin's natural communities, contact:
Ryan O'Connor
Natural Heritage Inventory Assistant Ecologist

Sand Prairie

State Rank: S2     Global Rank: GNR   what are these ranks?


General natural community overview

Counties shaded blue have documented occurrences for Sand Prairie in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database.

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 [PDF] 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.

Rare animals

Species of Greatest Conservation Need

Note: the information presented here comes from the 2005 Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan. The Wildlife Action Plan is currently under revision, so this page will be updated with new information before the end of 2015.

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 Wisconsin's 2005 Wildlife Action Plan.

Scores: 3 = "significantly associated," 2 = "moderately associated," and 1 = "minimally associated."
Brown ThrasherToxostoma rufum3
Field SparrowSpizella pusilla3
Grasshopper SparrowAmmodramus savannarum3
Lark SparrowChondestes grammacus3
Vesper SparrowPooecetes gramineus3
Bell's VireoVireo bellii2
Eastern MeadowlarkSturnella magna2
Loggerhead ShrikeLanius ludovicianus2
Northern FlickerColaptes auratus2
Upland SandpiperBartramia longicauda2
Western MeadowlarkSturnella neglecta2
Blue-winged TealAnas discors1
Greater Prairie-ChickenTympanuchus cupido1
Northern BobwhiteColinus virginianus1
Northern HarrierCircus cyaneus1
Short-eared OwlAsio flammeus1
Willow FlycatcherEmpidonax traillii1

Scores: 3 = "significantly associated," 2 = "moderately associated," and 1 = "minimally associated."
BadgerTaxidea taxus3
Franklin's Ground SquirrelSpermophilus franklinii3
Least ShrewCryptotis parva3
Prairie VoleMicrotus ochrogaster3
Western Harvest MouseReithrodontomys megalotis3
White-tailed JackrabbitLepus townsendii3

Scores: 3 = "significantly associated," 2 = "moderately associated," and 1 = "minimally associated."
Reptiles and AmphibiansScore
Gray RatsnakePantherophis spiloides1

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

Rare plants

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.

Scores: 3 = "significantly associated," 2 = "moderately associated," and 1 = "minimally associated."
Scientific Name Common Name Score
Anemone caroliniana Carolina Anemone 3
Artemisia frigida Prairie Sagebrush 3
Asclepias lanuginosa Woolly Milkweed 2
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
Senna marilandica Maryland Senna 2
Strophostyles leiosperma Small-flowered Woolly Bean 2
Symphyotrichum racemosum var. subdumosum Fragile-stemmed Aster 1


Management Opportunities

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

Map of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin.

Ecological LandscapeOpportunity
Central Sand PlainsMajor
Western Coulee and RidgesMajor
Central Sand HillsImportant
Western PrairieImportant
Southeast Glacial PlainsPresent
Southwest SavannaPresent

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 Wildlife Action Plan is currently under revision, so this page will be updated with new information before the end of 2015.

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 actions

  • 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.


Note: the information presented here comes from the 2005 Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan. The Wildlife Action Plan is currently under revision, so this page will be updated with new information before the end of 2015.

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.

Western Prairie

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

Sand Prairie Photo

Sand Prairie on a sandy island within the floodplain of the Lower Chippewa River, Dunn County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Sand Prairie Photo

Sand prairie and Oak Barrens on sandy island within the floodplain of the Lower Chippewa River. Chippewa Island, Dunn County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Sand Prairie Photo

Sand prairie and Oak Barrens on sandy island within the floodplain of the Lower Chippewa River. Chippewa Island, Dunn County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Sand Prairie Photo

This partially restored Sand Prairie and Oak Barrens complex is situated on a broad terrace along the Mississippi River. Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, Trempealeau County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Sand Prairie Photo

Sand Prairie and Oak Barrens restoration. Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, Trempeleau County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Sand Prairie Photo

Use in "grasslands" section.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Sand Prairie Photo

Herb-rich Sand Prairie near Millston. Black River State Forest, Jackson County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

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