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

Oak Barrens

State Rank: S2     Global Rank: G2?   what are these ranks?


General natural community overview

Counties shaded blue have documented occurrences for Oak Barrens in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database.

Black oak is often the dominant tree in this fire-adapted savanna community of xeric sites, but white oak, bur oak, northern pin oak, and occasionally red oak, may also be present. Common understory species include lead plant, black-eyed susan, round-headed bush-clover, goats rue, june grass, little bluestem, flowering spurge, frostweed, false Solomon's-seal, spiderwort, and wild lupine. Some of the oak barrens remnants also contain patches of heath-like vegetation in addition to the prairie understory, with bracken fern, blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium and V. myrtilloides), bearberry, and sweet fern locally common or even dominant. Distribution of this community is mostly in southwestern, central and west central Wisconsin.

The pine barrens and oak barrens communities described by Curtis (1959) share many similarities. In general, prairie species are better represented in the more oak-dominated barrens to the south, and pines and some of their characteristic associates are more prominent in the north. However, jack pine is an important component of some of Wisconsin's southernmost barrens occurrences (e.g., Gotham Jack Pines on the Wisconsin River in Richland County), and both red pine savanna and jack pine barrens were described in the Public Land Survey notes for Juneau County. Frequent fires can reduce the oaks to short, multi-stemmed "grubs", and result in the elimination of scattered large oaks that were formerly important in and characteristic of some areas.

Barrens communities occur on several landforms, especially outwash plains, lakeplains, and on the broad sandy terraces that flank some of the major rivers of southern Wisconsin. Soils are usually excessively well-drained sands, though thin-soiled, droughty sites over bedrock can also support this community. Similar communities include pine barrens, oak openings (drier sites), sand prairie, southern dry forest, Central Sands pine - oak forest, and bedrock glade.

Natural Heritage Inventory description 1

Black oak (Quercus velutina) is the dominant tree in this fire-adapted savanna community of xeric sites, but other oaks may also be present. Common understory species are lead plant (Amorpha canescens), black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), goat's rue (Tephrosia virginiana), june grass (Koeleria cristata), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), frostweed (Helianthemum canadense), false Solomon's-seals (Smilacina racemosa and S. stellata), spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis), and lupine (Lupinus perennis). Distribution of this community is mostly in southwestern, central and west central Wisconsin.

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

The content for this page came from the Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan

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

Scores: 3 = "significantly associated," 2 = "moderately associated," and 1 = "minimally associated."
Brown ThrasherToxostoma rufum3
Lark SparrowChondestes grammacus3
Sharp-tailed GrouseTympanuchus phasianellus3
Vesper SparrowPooecetes gramineus3
Black-billed CuckooCoccyzus erythropthalmus2
Field SparrowSpizella pusilla2
Grasshopper SparrowAmmodramus savannarum2
Loggerhead ShrikeLanius ludovicianus2
Northern FlickerColaptes auratus2
Northern HarrierCircus cyaneus2
Red-headed WoodpeckerMelanerpes erythrocephalus2
Upland SandpiperBartramia longicauda2
Western MeadowlarkSturnella neglecta2
Whip-poor-willCaprimulgus vociferus2
American WoodcockScolopax minor1
Blue-winged WarblerVermivora pinus1
DickcisselSpiza americana1

Scores: 3 = "significantly associated," 2 = "moderately associated," and 1 = "minimally associated."
BadgerTaxidea taxus3
Franklin's Ground SquirrelSpermophilus franklinii3
Eastern Red BatLasiurus borealis2
Gray FoxUrocyon cinereoargenteus2
Gray WolfCanis lupus2
Least ShrewCryptotis parva2
Northern Long-eared BatMyotis septentrionalis2
Prairie VoleMicrotus ochrogaster2
Western Harvest MouseReithrodontomys megalotis2
CougarPuma concolor1
White-tailed JackrabbitLepus townsendii1
Woodland VoleMicrotus pinetorum1

Scores: 3 = "significantly associated," 2 = "moderately associated," and 1 = "minimally associated."
Reptiles and AmphibiansScore
Boreal Chorus FrogPseudacris maculata3

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

Rare plants

Rare plants associated with Oak Barrens

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
Agalinis gattingeri Roundstem Foxglove 2
Agalinis skinneriana Pale False Foxglove 3
Arabis missouriensis Missouri Rock-cress 3
Asclepias lanuginosa Woolly Milkweed 3
Asclepias ovalifolia Dwarf Milkweed 3
Baptisia tinctoria Yellow Wild-indigo 3
Juncus marginatus Grassleaf Rush 2
Liatris punctata var. nebraskana Dotted Blazing Star 1
Opuntia fragilis Brittle Prickly-pear 2
Packera plattensis Prairie Ragwort 2
Phemeranthus rugospermus Prairie Fame-flower 2
Piptatherum canadense Canada Mountain-ricegrass 2
Polytaenia nuttallii Prairie Parsley 2
Pseudognaphalium micradenium Catfoot 2
Symphyotrichum racemosum var. subdumosum Fragile-stemmed Aster 2
Vaccinium pallidum Blue Ridge Blueberry 3
Viola sagittata var. ovata Sand Violet 3


Management Opportunities

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

Map of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin.

Ecological LandscapeOpportunity
Central Sand PlainsMajor
Northwest SandsMajor
Western Coulee and RidgesMajor
Central Sand HillsImportant

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 Oak Barrens 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


  • Some existing sites are small, overgrown with woody vegetation, and isolated. Small patch size may be a problem for some species; research is needed on the appropriate range of sizes needed to maintain all barrens species.
  • Current composition and structure does not reflect the wide range of natural variability of this type.
  • Lack of fire allows conversion to forest; too much burning may result in simplification and the elimination of some species.
  • Invasive plants such as spotted knapweed and exotic spurges are an existing serious threat.
  • Grazing by cattle and high deer densities can diminish or eliminate understory plants.
  • Rural housing and exurban development fragments restorable stands, and makes the use of prescribed fire problematic.
  • Conversion to pine plantations is a significant threat in some places. This trend may be exacerbated by objectives for removing oak stands of low economic value that are potentially threatened by gypsy moth outbreaks. Conflicts sometimes exist with forest or grassland objectives.
  • Some areas that likely contain restorable sites have not been adequately inventoried (e.g. along the lower Black River).
  • More information is needed to learn how to manage for the full range of natural variability associated with this community type.
  • “Savannas”, characterized by widely scattered large trees, are under-represented in our managed barrens.
  • ATV’s and other motorized vehicles can damage fragile soils, lead to erosion, and facilitate the spread of invasive plants. They can also directly damage or destroy sensitive vegetation.
  • Dense sods of Pennsylvania sedge dominate the groundlayers of many former barrens sites from which fire has been excluded, and plant diversity in such sites is currently very low.

Conservation actions

  • This complex of community types is globally rare. Long-term conservation will depend on a combination of protection and restoration, and Wisconsin has some of the best management opportunities in North America.
  • Research on restoration techniques and their effectiveness is needed, and should be applied at appropriate sites.
  • Identify additional locations where restorable sites exist. Limit additional development on and around restorable sites to increase management options.
  • Active management is required to maintain the type. Develop a practical "toolkit" for maintaining the structure and composition characteristic of barrens ecosystems.
  • Encourage use of prescribed fire to maintain this community, along with mechanical brushing and compatible forestry practices. Develop educational tools and demonstration areas that promote benefits of prescribed fire, and address the public's liability concerns. Follow existing WDNR screening guidance to minimize impacts on sensitive species.
  • Where possible, manage this type in complexes with pine barrens, sand prairie, southern dry forest, bedrock glade, and surrogate grasslands to achieve economies of scale and better ensure that all phases of the community and its associated species are maintained over time. Use surrogate habitat following logging to buffer barrens openings, allow for species dispersal, and connect existing habitat. Manage this type as a moving mosaic of habitat, ensuring that habitat for the many species that require open conditions is not diminished or degraded.
  • Reduce deer density.
  • Restrict ATV use in sensitive areas.
  • Continue and support research to find biocontrols for invasives. Control the spread of new invasives and attempt to identify populations of invasives when they are small and eliminate them.


The following are additional considerations for Oak Barrens 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

Oak barrens are not well represented in this Ecological Landscape, but there are good opportunities for restoration at small to medium scales. Opportunities occur at Rocky Run Savanna State Natural Area (Columbia County) Lawrence Creek State Natural Area (Adams and Marquette Counties), and Emmons Creek State Fishery Area (Portage County).

Central Sand Plains

The large public land base in the Central Sand Plains Ecological Landscape can be used to accomplish barrens restoration and management objectives. Opportunities to develop partnerships with private groups should be explored and fostered. Restoration and management efforts are underway at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (Juneau County), Bauer-Brockway Barrens (Jackson County Forest), Quincy Bluff and Wetlands State Natural Area (Adams County), and Sandhill State Wildlife Area (Wood County). There are legitimate restoration opportunities on the Black River State Forest (Jackson County).

Western Coulee and Ridges

Excellent examples of oak barrens occur at Fort McCoy Military Reservation (Monroe County). There are some distinctive and important occurrences of barrens (that include jack pine) on the broad terraces bordering some of the major rivers in the Ecological Landscape, e.g., North Bend Bottoms State Wildlife Area (Jackson County), Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge (Trempealeau County), and Nine Mile Island Savanna (Pepin County). Additional survey work is warranted on some of the major river terraces, especially the Black.


Oak Barrens Photos

Oak Barrens  [Photo #38]

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

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #952]

Oak barrens near Millston. Black River State Forest, Jackson County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #965]

This extensive oak barrens is managed with frequent prescribed burns resulting in a mostly treeless landscape with scattered oak grubs. The prairie flora component here is fairly depauperate when compared to sites further south. Namekagon Barrens, Burnet

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #967]

Groves of scrub oak interspersed with scattered prairie openings. Sterling Barrens State Natural Area, Polk County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #1082]

Oak Barrens remnant, Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, Juneau County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #1459]

Brush prairie with New Jersey Tea, willow and oak. (Ceanothus, Salix, Quercus). Oak Barrens, Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area, Burnett County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #1460]

Prairie opening on south-facing slope within mixed barrens above the St. Croix River. Trade River Barrens, Polk County.

Photo by William E. Tans.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #1461]

Brushy Oak Barrens with rich herb layer of native grasses and forbs in full bloom. Fenton Lake Barrens, Burnett County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #1462]

Prairie fame-flower (Talinum rugospermum) habitat and Oak Barrens at base of south-facing Cambrian sandstone bluff, Monroe County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #1535]

Barrens landscape dominated by prairie herbs and scrub oak with scattered pockets of jack pine. Namekagon Barrens, South unit. Burnett County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #1536]

Aerial view of barrens landscape showing prescribed burn units. Namekagon Barrens - North Unit, Burnett County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #1813]

Oak Barrens, Fort McCoy Military Reservation, Monroe County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #2081]

Partially restored Sand Prairie / Oak Barrens in the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, Trempealeau County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #2729]

Oak Barrens and Sand Prairie, Fort McCoy Military Reservation, Monroe County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #2730]

Disturbed barrens north of the Eau Claire River heavily infested with the non-native and invasive plant, leafy spurge. Eau Claire County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #2731]

Fort McCoy Oak Barrens, Monroe County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #2733]

Fort McCoy Oak Barrens, Monroe County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #2735]

Hill's Oak-Jack Pine Savanna. Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. Juneau County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #2736]

Open grown oak, Caryville Savanna, Dunn County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #2738]

Oak Barrens. Nine Mile Island Savanna, Dunn County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #2740]

Barrens restoration, Rynearson Flowage, Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, Juneau County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #2742]

Caryville Savanna from south, looking north. Chippewa River, Dunn County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens  [Photo #5226]

Restored Oak Barrens, Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, Juneau County.

Photo by Armund Bartz.

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: Tuesday, October 07, 2014