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If you have questions, contact:
Kristen Tomaszewski
608-266-5202

Statewide Forest Action Plan Part 1: AssessmentCriterion 1: Conservation of biological diversity

Major conclusions

The area of the Assessment focusing on conservation of biological diversity draws five major conclusions based on the data.

1) Wisconsin's forest composition and structure is evolving

Wisconsin's forests are recovering from the cutover that occurred between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s, but they are simplified compared to historical forests. Ongoing recovery cannot, however, be assumed due to new disturbance factors influencing forest progression. The relative abundance of species changed about five times as much in the 1800s as changed in the preceding 3,000 years (see Appendix A: Ecological History of Wisconsin's Forests). Logging, slash fires and agricultural expansion during the period known as the "Cutover" had a profound effect on Wisconsin's biological diversity.

The state's forest resources have been characterized by nearly a century of recovery. Wisconsin's forests are now unquestionably of tremendous environmental, social and economic significance. They do not, however, possess the same complexity that forests had before Euro-American settlement. In addition, a new suite of disturbance factors such as deer browsing, climate change, invasive pests and absence of fire increase the risk of prolonged ecological simplification. Continuing recovery of biological diversity cannot be assumed in the face of such challenges.

Ecological simplification (the reduction of species/structural diversity and increased dominance of fewer species) limits the availability of diverse habitat. Simplification has been affected by:

  • loss of seed sources for trees such as pine, hemlock, yellow birch and cedar, countered by a prevalence of maples on many sites;
  • an onslaught of jack pine pests and difficulty regenerating jack pine, resulting in a 50 percent reduction in growing stock volume since the early 1980s;
  • decrease in quality oaks on moderately moist and slightly dry sites;
  • scarcity of large trees, cavity trees, snags and coarse woody debris;
  • loss of older forests (greater than 100-120 years old);
  • disturbances that hinder the development of complex structure in younger forests as they mature; and
  • reliance on maple and ash for the majority of trees in urban forests, exposing them to high risk of catastrophic loss from invasive pests.

2) The composition of the large scale forest landscape is becoming fragmented and broken into small parcels

Large expanses of working forests free of development pressure are decreasing. Anthropogenic factors such as housing and road development alter habitat, fragment landscapes and threaten biodiversity.

  • Few large, remote interior forest patches (especially containing old forest) remain in Wisconsin. Adjacency of disturbed forests, development and infrastructure impacts the values associated with interior forest patches. Many smaller patches are effectively all edge.
  • Road and housing density and parcelization within forested landscapes continue to increase.
  • Increasing parcelization contributes to fragmentation and can be a barrier to coordinated landscape habitat management and the conservation of biodiversity.
  • The best opportunities to manage forests on a broad scale occur in the north, although opportunities exist in select locations in the south. Southern forests retain important ecological functions and support many rare species.

3) Many native forest species are doing well, but the status of forest communities and species of concern is difficult to fully assess due to the lack of data and knowledge on life histories, habitat requirements and population ecology of community types and rare species

Although there are data gaps, current monitoring efforts show that forest habitat is critical for numerous rare species and that opportunities exist to enhance habitat and maintain biodiversity for forest species.

  • Invasive plants and animals are a threat to the biodiversity of Wisconsin forests. Some infestations are out of control in the southern half of the state, and many undesirable species are taking hold in the north.
  • Wisconsin forests provide habitat for numerous rare species including at least 15 rare vertebrates and numerous rare invertebrates and plants.
  • Life history information is unavailable for many rare plant and animal species, and forestry professionals and other natural resource land managers want guidance on how to care for them.
  • In general, neo-tropical migrant forest birds increased in Wisconsin over the last 40 years. This is especially true for birds that nest in middle-aged to older forests and for the wide range of conifer-dependent species. The status of some rare, forest obligate species like red-shouldered hawk, Cerulean warbler, northern goshawk and spruce grouse is not precisely known at a local scale.
  • Habitat for American marten appears limited and its persistence in the state is tenuous. Changing climate, increased competition with fishers and predation may be additional factors limiting population viability.
  • Although the state legislature authorizes DNR to update the Wisconsin wetland inventory on a ten year cycle, budget constraints and lack of staff have slowed this process to a 24 year cycle (at best).

4) More data is needed to evaluate how effectively Wisconsin's forests are sustaining native biological diversity

There are ongoing projects that track and monitor many species and communities, but projects that assess species habitat associations and develop modeling procedures to estimate biodiversity at larger scales would be beneficial for:

  • actual extent and impacts of identified concerns such as fragmentation;
  • management regimes and impacts on community composition and structure;
  • community type (e.g. old-growth pine forest) representation, composition and structure;
  • species of greatest conservation need and plant species;
  • Forest-based species' life histories, habitat requirements and population ecology;
  • Indirect and cumulative effects (e.g. unintended consequences) of changes in biodiversity, habitat and environment; and
  • acres and distribution of passively managed and older (greater than 120 years) forest lands and those adaptively managed to achieve native community habitat goals.

5) Wisconsin enjoys an exceptional state natural areas program protecting 607 reserves encompassing 326,000 acres in 70 counties

The program, inspired by Wisconsin conservationist Aldo Leopold, began in 1951 and was the first state natural areas project in the country.

Last revised: Wednesday September 23 2015