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Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape
Download the Northwest Sands chapter of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin. This chapter provides a detailed assessment of the ecological and socioeconomic conditions for the Northwest Sands. It also identifies important planning and management considerations and suggests management opportunities that are compatible with the ecology of the landscape. The tabs below provide additional information.
Landscape at a Glance
|Physical & Biotic Environment|
1,956 square miles (1,251,723 acres) of land surface are within the Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape. This is 3.5% of the land area of the State of Wisconsin.
Mean annual temperature (41.30 F) is similar to other northern Ecological Landscapes. Annual precipitation averages 31.4 inches and annual snowfall about 61 inches, also similar to other northern Ecological Landscapes. The growing season is short and averages 121 days. Although there is adequate rainfall to support agricultural row crops such as corn, the sandy soil and short growing season limit row crop agriculture, especially in the northern part of the Ecological Landscape. Learn more from the chapter
Underlying bedrock at the southern edge of the Northwest Sands is Cambrian quartzose and glauconitic sandstone and silt-stone. In the northern portion, the bedrock is Precambrian basalt, lithic conglomerate, shale, and feldspathic to quartzose sandstone. Bedrock is covered with 100 to 600 feet of glacial drift (sand, gravel, and silt), with the thickest deposits in the northern half. No terrestrial bedrock exposures are known from this Ecological Landscape. Learn more from the chapter
Geology & Landforms
This Ecological Landscape is the most extensive and continuous xeric glacial outwash system in northern Wisconsin. It has two major geomorphic components. One is a large outwash plain pitted with depressions, or "kettle lakes." The other component is a former spillway of Glacial Lake Duluth (which preceded Lake Superior) and its associated terraces. The spillway is now a river valley occupied by the St. Croix and Bois Brule Rivers. The hills in the northeast are formed primarily of sand, deposited as ice-contact fans at the outlet of subglacial tunnels. Lacustrine deposits (especially fine materials of low permeability such as clays) from Glacial Lake Grantsburg underlie Crex Meadows and Fish Lake Wildlife Areas, and are responsible for impeding drainage, leading to the formation of the large wetlands there. Learn more from the chapter
Upland soils are typically sands or loamy sands over deeper-lying strata of sand, or sand mixed with gravel. These soils drain rapidly, leading to xeric, droughty conditions within the Ecological Landscape. Wetlands in low-lying depressions have organic soils of peat or muck. Learn more from the chapter
This Ecological Landscape has significant concentrations of glacial kettle lakes, most of them seepage lakes, a well-developed pattern of drainage lakes, and several large wetland complexes. The lakes cover roughly 4.8% of the area of the Northwest Sands, the third highest percentage among ecological landscapes in Wisconsin. The headwaters of the St. Croix and Bois Brule rivers are here. Major rivers include the St. Croix, Namekagon, Yellow, and Totagatic. Springs and seepages are common along the Upper Bois Brule but local elsewhere. Learn more from the chapter
Landcover is a mix of dry forest, barrens, grassland, and agriculture, with wetlands occupying significant parts of the bed of extinct Glacial Lake Grantsburg, kettle depressions, and some river valleys. Within the forested portion, pine, aspen-birch, and oak are roughly equally dominant. The maple-basswood, spruce-fir, and bottomland hardwood forest types occupy small percentages of the Ecological Landscape's forests. The open lands include a large proportion of grassland and shrubland. Emergent/wet meadow and open water are significant in the southern part of the Northwest Sands. There is very little row-crop agriculture. Learn more from the chapter
(based on data from Bayfield, Burnett, Douglas and Washburn counties)
90,010, 1.6% of the state total
20 persons/ sq. mile
Per Capita Income
Important Economic Sectors
The largest employment sectors in 2007 were: Government (18.7%); Tourism-related (15.8%), Retail trade (10.7%); Health care and social services (9.7%). Although forestry does not have a large impact on the number of jobs, it is the sector that has the largest impact on the natural resources in the Ecological Landscape.
Forty-eight percent of the land and water in the NWS EL is in public ownership. Federal lands include parts of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. Important state-owned lands include Crex Meadows, Fish Lake, Amsterdam Sloughs, and Douglas County Wildlife Areas, and parts of the Brule River and Governor Knowles State Forests. Extensive county forests are owned and managed by Bayfield, Burnett, Douglas, and Washburn counties. The Wisconsin DNR leases county land for the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area explicitly for barrens management. A map showing public land ownership (county, state, and federal) and private lands enrolled in the Forest Tax Programs in this Ecological Landscape can be found at the end of this chapter.
Other Notable Ownerships
The Wisconsin Chapter of The Nature Conservancy has developed conservation agreements with a number of persons owning land along and near the Brule River in Douglas County.
|Considerations for Planning & Management|
Lakeshore development has been occurring at a rapid rate, partly because of this Ecological Landscape's close proximity to the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. The sandy soils are low in productivity and highly erodible, and great care must be taken when planning and conducting timber harvests, and in using motorized recreational vehicles such as ATVs, to avoid causing damage to slopes and fragile vegetation. Many rare plants and animals occur here, especially in the barrens and sedge meadow habitats, and these need consideration when planning and conducting management activities here. Increasing connectivity between patches of open or semi-open lands such as pine or oak barrens remnants, and reducing habitat fragmentation and isolation, are major management considerations for the Northwest Sands. Achieving greater connectivity between open habitats may be accomplished by the use of firebreaks, rights-of-way, pastureland, CRP, or other types of non-forested cover. There is typically sharp contrast ("hard edge") between the open, non-forested habitats and the surrounding dry forests. Identifying areas where some of this high contrast hard edge may be reduced is needed to plan for and provide greater structural variability in the dynamic barrens ecosystems and to better meet the needs of species not well adapted to either very open or densely canopied habitats. In recent years there has been a great increase in the amount of land planted up to pine plantations, usually at the expense of dry forest and barrens communities. Much of the vegetation here is dependent on periodic disturbance, especially via the use of prescribed fire. Some types of land disturbance can facilitate the colonization and spread of invasive plants. Leafy spurge and spotted knapweed are among the invasive plants currently posing problems in sandy uplands. Common reed is present in some open wetlands and may be increasing. Glossy buckthorn has been reported from the extensive cedar swamps along the upper Brule River. Learn more about management opportunities from the chapter
Species of Greatest Conservation Need
The following species are listed according to their probability of occurring in the Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape, based on the findings in the Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan.
|American Bittern||Botaurus lentiginosus||3|
|American Woodcock||Scolopax minor||3|
|Bald Eagle||Haliaeetus leucocephalus||3|
|Black Tern||Chlidonias niger||3|
|Black-backed Woodpecker||Picoides arcticus||3|
|Black-billed Cuckoo||Coccyzus erythropthalmus||3|
|Blue-winged Teal||Anas discors||3|
|Brown Thrasher||Toxostoma rufum||3|
|Connecticut Warbler||Oporornis agilis||3|
|Field Sparrow||Spizella pusilla||3|
|Golden-winged Warbler||Vermivora chrysoptera||3|
|Le Conte's Sparrow||Ammodramus leconteii||3|
|Least Flycatcher||Empidonax minimus||3|
|Lesser Scaup||Aythya affinis||3|
|Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow||Ammodramus nelsoni||3|
|Northern Harrier||Circus cyaneus||3|
|Red Crossbill||Loxia curvirostra||3|
|Red-headed Woodpecker||Melanerpes erythrocephalus||3|
|Sharp-tailed Grouse||Tympanuchus phasianellus||3|
|Short-billed Dowitcher||Limnodromus griseus||3|
|Trumpeter Swan||Cygnus buccinator||3|
|Upland Sandpiper||Bartramia longicauda||3|
|Vesper Sparrow||Pooecetes gramineus||3|
|Yellow Rail||Coturnicops noveboracensis||3|
|American Golden Plover||Pluvialis dominica||2|
|Blue-winged Warbler||Vermivora pinus||2|
|Canada Warbler||Wilsonia canadensis||2|
|Eastern Meadowlark||Sturnella magna||2|
|Grasshopper Sparrow||Ammodramus savannarum||2|
|Hudsonian Godwit||Limosa haemastica||2|
|Marbled Godwit||Limosa fedoa||2|
|Northern Goshawk||Accipiter gentilis||2|
|Olive-sided Flycatcher||Contopus cooperi||2|
|Red-necked Grebe||Podiceps grisegena||2|
|Red-shouldered Hawk||Buteo lineatus||2|
|Rusty Blackbird||Euphagus carolinus||2|
|Solitary Sandpiper||Tringa solitaria||2|
|Wilson's Phalarope||Phalaropus tricolor||2|
|Wood Thrush||Hylocichla mustelina||2|
|American Black Duck||Anas rubripes||1|
|Black-throated Blue Warbler||Dendroica caerulescens||1|
|Boreal Chickadee||Poecile hudsonica||1|
|Henslow's Sparrow||Ammodramus henslowii||1|
|Horned Grebe||Podiceps auritus||1|
|Kirtland's Warbler||Dendroica kirtlandii||1|
|Loggerhead Shrike||Lanius ludovicianus||1|
|Spruce Grouse||Falcipennis canadensis||1|
|Western Meadowlark||Sturnella neglecta||1|
|Willow Flycatcher||Empidonax traillii||1|
|Yellow-billed Cuckoo||Coccyzus americanus||1|
|Banded Killifish||Fundulus diaphanus||3|
|Greater Redhorse||Moxostoma valenciennesi||3|
|Least Darter||Etheostoma microperca||3|
|Pugnose Shiner||Notropis anogenus||3|
|River Redhorse||Moxostoma carinatum||3|
|Gilt Darter||Percina evides||2|
|Lake Sturgeon||Acipenser fulvescens||2|
|Reptiles and Amphibians||Score|
|Boreal Chorus Frog||Pseudacris maculata||3|
|Four-toed Salamander||Hemidactylium scutatum||2|
|Mink Frog||Rana septentrionalis||2|
|Pickerel Frog||Rana palustris||2|
|Franklin's Ground Squirrel||Spermophilus franklinii||3|
|Gray Wolf||Canis lupus||3|
|Northern Flying Squirrel||Glaucomys sabrinus||3|
|Water Shrew||Sorex palustris||3|
|Woodland Jumping Mouse||Napaeozapus insignis||2|
|Eastern Red Bat||Lasiurus borealis||1|
|Hoary Bat||Lasiurus cinereus||1|
|Northern Long-eared Bat||Myotis septentrionalis||1|
|Prairie Vole||Microtus ochrogaster||1|
|Silver-haired Bat||Lasionycteris noctivagans||1|
|White-tailed Jackrabbit||Lepus townsendii||1|
Natural community management opportunities
The Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape contains opportunities to manage for the following natural communities, based on the findings in the Wildlife Action Plan (originally presented by the Ecosystem Management Team).
|Natural Community Type||Opportunity|
|Emergent Marsh - Wild Rice||Major|
|Northern Dry Forest||Major|
|Northern Dry-mesic Forest||Major|
|Northern Sedge Meadow||Major|
|Northern Wet Forest||Major|
|Northern Hardwood Swamp||Important|
|Northern Wet-mesic Forest||Important|
|Northern Mesic Forest||Present|
|Submergent Marsh - Oligotrophic||Present|
Description of Terms Used to Define Opportunities for Protection, Restoration and/or Management of Natural Communities by Ecological Landscapes
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.
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.
The natural community occurs in the Ecological Landscape, but better management opportunities appear to exist in other parts of the state.
General management opportunities 1
The Northwest Sands is the best place in Wisconsin and, arguably, the planet to manage for the globally rare Pine Barrens community. Large-scale barrens management is possible here because of the ecological suitability of the land, the presence of numerous remnants and substantial public ownership. There are opportunities to connect existing barrens remnants and restoration projects with corridors and manage them with a mosaic of compatible vegetation types. Prescribed fire and other management tools can be used to develop more diverse structural characteristics and to enhance or restore species composition in many pine-oak barrens communities.
Some of the state's best places to manage for dry forests of jack pine, northern pin oak and red pine are found here. There are also opportunities to manage for older dry-mesic white pine-red pine-red oak forests, in the rugged northern part of the landscape, on the slopes above the Bois Brule River in Douglas County, along the St. Croix River in Burnett and Polk counties and at scattered locations elsewhere.
Wetlands are extensive, provide habitat for many sensitive species and represent major management opportunities. The open meadows and marshes in the southwestern part of the Northwest Sands are particularly important because of their size, condition, intact hydrology and the presence of numerous habitat specialists. Some of the larger marshes are within the managed flowages at Crex Meadows and Fish Lake Wildlife Areas and at Gordon on the St. Croix River. Acid peatlands of black spruce-tamarack swamp, muskeg, open bog and poor fen are widespread and common, especially in areas of pitted outwash, where lakes and poorly drained kettle depressions are important landscape features.
The Northwest Sands harbors significant concentrations of glacial kettle lakes. Development pressures are high. The lakes provide high quality habitats for aquatic organisms, resident and migratory birds and many other species. Inland Beaches are rare, localized, or absent in most of Wisconsin. Here, beach communities occupy the sand and gravel littoral zones of softwater seepage lakes with upland shorelines and which experience naturally fluctuating water levels. There is a need to conduct an inventory of lacustrine and beach habitats to identify the best occurrences and associated rare species populations. The protection of undeveloped lakes and associated high-quality habitats is a significant opportunity in the Northwest Sands.
The St. Croix, Namekagon, Totagatic, Bois Brule and Eau Claire rivers warrant special attention because of their excellent water quality, exceptional aquatic biota, recreational opportunities and aesthetic features. The north-south orientation of the St. Croix and Bois Brule rivers, along with the generally unfragmented condition of the forests bordering these rivers, makes them highly significant to migratory birds and probably, to other species. The extensive white cedar swamp along the upper Bois Brule River is among Wisconsin's best examples of that community type and merits strong protection. Excellent occurrences of alder thicket, springs and spring seeps and spring ponds also occur along the upper Brule and present additional management and protection opportunities.
1. The text presented here is a summarized version of a longer section developed for the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin Handbook.
Northwest Sands maps
Printable maps from the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin Handbook.
- Finley's Vegetation of the Mid-1800s
- Land Cover of the Mid-1800's
- Landtype Associations (LTAs)
- Public Land Ownership, Easements and Private Land Enrolled in Forest Tax Programs
- Ecologically Significant Places
- Exceptional and Outstanding Resource Waters and 303(d) Degraded Waters (2010 Update)
- WISCLAND Land Cover (1992)
- Soil Regions
- Relative Tree Density in the Mid-1800s
- Population Density, Cities, and Transportation
Also see the statewide maps from the Ecological Landscapes Handbook.
Northwest Sands Landtype Associations
Landtype Associations (LTAs) are units of the National Hierarchical Framework of Ecological Units (NHFEU), a hierarchical ecological land classification system. LTAs are much smaller than Ecological Landscapes, ranging in size from 10,000 and 300,000 acres. In Wisconsin, they are usually based on glacial features like individual moraines or outwash plains. LTAs can be very useful for planning at finer scales within an Ecological Landscape.
The following are the LTAs associated with the Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape. The Northwest Sands LTA map can be used to locate these LTAs. Clicking on an LTA in the list below will open a data table for that LTA in PDF format. Descriptions are included, where available.
- 212Ka07. Bayfield Rolling Outwash and Washed Till
- 212Ka04. Bayfield Rolling Outwash Barrens
- 212Ka08. Oula Washed Moraine
- 212Ka14. Upper Brule-St. Croix Valley
- 212Ka11. Gordon Rolling Barrens
- 212Ka12. Beauregard Knolls
- 212Ka06. Bayfield Level Barrens
- 212Ka13. Hayward Plains
- 212Ka15. Lower Namekagon Rolling Barrens
- 212Ka05. Webb Lake Collapsed Barrens
- 212Ka16. Danbury-Trego Plains
- 212Ka01. Grantsburg Dunes
- 212Ka09. Siren Plains
- 212Ka02. Grantsburg Lake Plain
- 212Ka03. Spooner Plains