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Map showing the Central Lake Michigan Coastal Ecological Landscape
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For information on Wisconsin's Ecological Landscapes, contact:
Andy Stoltman

Superior Coastal Plain Ecological Landscape

Download the Superior Coastal Plain chapter [PDF] of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin. This chapter provides a detailed assessment of the ecological and socioeconomic conditions for the Superior Coastal Plain. 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


1,416 square miles (905,929 acres), representing 2.5% of the area of the state.


Typical of northern Wisconsin, though conditions are somewhat moderated by the proximity to Lake Superior; mean growing season of 122 days, mean annual temperature is 40.2 deg. F, mean annual precipitation is 32 inches, and mean annual snowfall is 87.4 inches. Cool summers, deep snows (including lake effect snows), high humidity, fog, mist, wave spray, currents, ice, and strong winds (e.g., along exposed coastlines, where blow-down events are frequent) affect parts of the Ecological Landscape, especially near Lake Superior. Some areas near Lake Superior support grass-based agriculture (18.5% of the Ecological Landscape). Portions of the northern Bayfield Peninsula have a climate and soils favorable for growing apples and other fruits. Areas away from Lake Superior have a shorter growing season and forests become more important than agriculture.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


Late Precambrian sandstones are exposed and form cliffs and ledges along the northern edge of the Bayfield Peninsula and on the shores of the Apostle Islands. Igneous rocks (e.g., basalts) form the underpinnings of several waterfalls.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

Geology & Landforms

The Bayfield Peninsula is hilly, as are some of the Apostle Islands. Both are covered by glacial tills. The level plains on either side of the Bayfield Peninsula slope gently toward Lake Superior. They are dissected by many deeply incised streams and several large rivers that generally flow from south to north toward Lake Superior. Sandspits, often enclosing lagoons and wetlands, are well-developed in the Apostle Islands archipelago and at river mouths; some of the larger spits are several miles long.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


Important soils include deep, poorly-drained reddish lacustrine clays on either side of the Bayfield Peninsula. The clay deposits include lenses of sand or coarse-textured till; these areas are especially erosion-prone when they are cut by streams. The tills covering the Bayfield Peninsula and Apostle Islands are variable in composition, but include clays, silts, loams and sands. Organic soils are limited in extent, occurring mostly in association with the peatlands on the margins of the coastal lagoons and to a lesser extent in basins underlain by impermeable tills.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


Lake Superior has had an enormous influence on the climate, landforms, soils, vegetation, and economy of the Superior Coastal Plain. Freshwater estuaries are present along the coast. Inland lakes are rare, but lagoons, some of them quite large, occur behind the coastal sandspits. Important rivers include the St. Louis, Nemadji, Bad, White, Amnicon, and Bois Brule. Coldwater streams originate in the aquifers at the northern edge of the Northwest Sands in Bayfield County and flow north across the Superior Coastal Plain before emptying into Lake Superior. Many of the streams flowing across the clay plain suffered severe damage to their banks and beds during the era of heavy logging in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of them have not yet recovered and their slumping banks continue to dump sediments into the main channels, and ultimately, into Lake Superior. Water (and soil) management can be challenging in this Ecological Landscape.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

Current Landcover

Aspen-dominated boreal forests are abundant on the clay plains to the west and east of the Bayfield Peninsula. In some areas white spruce, balsam fir, and white pine (these were the dominant canopy trees prior to the Cutover) are now common understory species, or are even colonizing abandoned pastures. Older stands of boreal conifers still occur in a few places, such as the City of Superior Municipal Forest. Forest fragmentation is significant on the clay plain owing to the interspersion of forests with fields and pastures. Northern hardwood and hemlock-hardwood forests occur on the Apostle Islands and include old-growth remnants. Dry forests of pine and oak are scarce in this Ecological Landscape but they do occur on some of the sandspits associated with coastal estuaries. The largest coastal wetlands cover thousands of acres, and these are composed of complex vegetation mosaics that include coniferous and deciduous forests, shrublands, wet meadows and marsh. Large wetlands in the interior of the Superior Coastal Plain include the Bibon Swamp, a huge wetland of almost 10,000 acres along the White River on the southern edge of the Ecological Landscape, and Sultz Swamp, a peatland perched high on the northern Bayfield Peninsula. An extensive complex of wetlands of variable structure occurs on poorly drained red clays in and around the City of Superior.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

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Socioeconomic Conditions
(based on data from Douglas, Bayfield, and Ashland counties)


75,056, 1.3% of the state total

Population Density

20 persons/ sq. mile

Per Capita Income


Important Economic Sectors

Government, tourism-related, health care and social services, and retail trade sectors employed the most people in 2007, reflecting high government service and recreation dependence. Some agriculture, including the growing of specialty crops such as apples and cherries, occurs here. Forestry, agriculture, and commercial fishing have the largest effects on the natural resources of the Superior Coastal Plain.

Public Ownership

Federal lands include Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (NPS); Whittlesey Creek National Wildlife Refuge; several USCG light stations; and a very small portion of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Important state-owned properties include the Brule River State Forest, and several state parks, wildlife areas, fishery areas, and natural areas. Most county-owned land is county forest (which includes several "special use" areas that are not managed primarily for wood products). The City of Superior owns a Municipal Forest of over 4,000 acres along the St. Louis River, and a large part of Wisconsin Point (part of a coastal barrier spit separating St. Louis and Allouez bays from the waters of Lake Superior at Duluth-Superior). 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

Other lands of high conservation value include the reservations of the Bad River and Red Cliff Bands of Lake Superior Ojibwa, projects under the direction of NGOs (e.g., local land trusts), and industrial forests. The Wisconsin Chapter of The Nature Conservancy has developed conservation easements with landowners along the Brule River and has also worked with many of the governmental units in this Ecological Landscape (including tribal governments) on conservation projects of mutual interest and benefit. Local land trusts have been active on Madeline Island (Ashland County) and in Douglas County.

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Considerations for Planning & Management

Major planning and management considerations in the Superior Coastal Plain include climate change; impacts of water level changes on the coastal wetlands and associated biota (including attempts to stabilize the water level of Lake Superior); the continued appearance and spread of invasive species; population trends in certain native species; managing water on the clay soils; and increasing the acreage of conifer-dominated boreal forest. Other important issues are shoreline development along rivers and Lake Superior and protection of areas used by migratory birds and spawning fish. Management of lands in the red clay country to lessen erosion and improve water quality and habitat for aquatic life, and reduce negative edge impacts (construction, agriculture, forestry - including reforestation), are issues deserving major consideration. The occurrences of many rare and geographically limited natural communities of exceptional quality have been documented here recently, along with numerous associated rare species. The coastal estuaries are regionally significant repositories for intact natural communities, such as conifer swamp, sedge meadow, fen, and marsh. Many rare plants and animals have been documented in the estuaries, which are also important nursery areas for fish. Use of some of these coastal wetlands, lagoons and associated sandspit habitats by migratory birds is very high, and some of the rare species use these habitats to the exclusion of most or any others.  Learn more about management opportunities from the chapter [PDF]

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Species of Greatest Conservation Need

The following species are listed according to their probability of occurring in the Superior Coastal Plain Ecological Landscape, based on the findings in Wisconsin's 2005 Wildlife Action Plan.

Note: The information presented here comes from the 2005 Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan. The 2015 revision has been submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for approval. Our website content will be updated when the plan has been approved.

Scores: 3 = "Significantly Associated," 2 = "Moderately Associated," and 1 = "Minimally Associated."
American BitternBotaurus lentiginosus3
American Golden PloverPluvialis dominica3
American WoodcockScolopax minor3
Bald EagleHaliaeetus leucocephalus3
Black TernChlidonias niger3
Black-billed CuckooCoccyzus erythropthalmus3
Black-throated Blue WarblerDendroica caerulescens3
Blue-winged TealAnas discors3
BobolinkDolichonyx oryzivorus3
Brown ThrasherToxostoma rufum3
Buff-breasted SandpiperTryngites subruficollis3
Canada WarblerWilsonia canadensis3
Common TernSterna hirundo3
DunlinCalidris alpina3
Eastern MeadowlarkSturnella magna3
Golden-winged WarblerVermivora chrysoptera3
Horned GrebePodiceps auritus3
Le Conte's SparrowAmmodramus leconteii3
Least FlycatcherEmpidonax minimus3
Lesser ScaupAythya affinis3
Marbled GodwitLimosa fedoa3
Northern HarrierCircus cyaneus3
Peregrine FalconFalco peregrinus3
Piping PloverCharadrius melodus3
Short-billed DowitcherLimnodromus griseus3
Trumpeter SwanCygnus buccinator3
Upland SandpiperBartramia longicauda3
VeeryCatharus fuscescens3
WhimbrelNumenius phaeopus3
Wood ThrushHylocichla mustelina3
Black-backed WoodpeckerPicoides arcticus2
CanvasbackAythya valisineria2
Hudsonian GodwitLimosa haemastica2
Olive-sided FlycatcherContopus cooperi2
Red CrossbillLoxia curvirostra2
Rusty BlackbirdEuphagus carolinus2
Sharp-tailed GrouseTympanuchus phasianellus2
Solitary SandpiperTringa solitaria2
Solitary SandpiperTringa solitaria2
Yellow RailCoturnicops noveboracensis2
American Black DuckAnas rubripes1
Caspian TernSterna caspia1
Connecticut WarblerOporornis agilis1
DickcisselSpiza americana1
Field SparrowSpizella pusilla1
Grasshopper SparrowAmmodramus savannarum1
Henslow's SparrowAmmodramus henslowii1
Loggerhead ShrikeLanius ludovicianus1
OspreyPandion haliaetus1
Red-headed WoodpeckerMelanerpes erythrocephalus1
Red-shouldered HawkButeo lineatus1
Vesper SparrowPooecetes gramineus1
Western MeadowlarkSturnella neglecta1
Whip-poor-willCaprimulgus vociferus1
Willow FlycatcherEmpidonax traillii1
Yellow-billed CuckooCoccyzus americanus1

Scores: 3 = "Significantly Associated," 2 = "Moderately Associated," and 1 = "Minimally Associated."
KiyiCoregonus kiyi3
Lake SturgeonAcipenser fulvescens3
Shortjaw CiscoCoregonus zenithicus3
American EelAnguilla rostrata1

Scores: 3 = "Significantly Associated," 2 = "Moderately Associated," and 1 = "Minimally Associated."
Reptiles and AmphibiansScore
Boreal Chorus FrogPseudacris maculata3
Four-toed SalamanderHemidactylium scutatum3
Mink FrogRana septentrionalis3
MudpuppyNecturus maculosus3
Pickerel FrogRana palustris2

Scores: 3 = "Significantly Associated," 2 = "Moderately Associated," and 1 = "Minimally Associated."
Franklin's Ground SquirrelSpermophilus franklinii3
Gray WolfCanis lupus3
Northern Flying SquirrelGlaucomys sabrinus3
Water ShrewSorex palustris3
Woodland Jumping MouseNapaeozapus insignis3
American MartenMartes americana2
Eastern Red BatLasiurus borealis2
Hoary BatLasiurus cinereus2
MooseAlces alces2
Northern Long-eared BatMyotis septentrionalis2
Silver-haired BatLasionycteris noctivagans2

Community opportunities

Natural community management opportunities

The Superior Coastal Plain Ecological Landscape contains opportunities to manage for the following natural communities, based on the findings in the 2005 Wildlife Action Plan (originally presented by the Ecosystem Management Team).

Note: The information presented here comes from the 2005 Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan. The 2015 revision has been submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for approval. Our website content will be updated when the plan has been approved.

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 opportunities

General management opportunities 1

Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world, affects virtually all natural features and many economic aspects of the Superior Coastal Plain. Continued cooperation and coordination across county, state and international boundaries will be needed to manage this globally important resource sustainably over time.

The freshwater estuaries in this landscape are exceptional and offer opportunities to protect or restore many high quality wetland habitats. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently designated the St. Louis River Estuary as part of a nation-wide system of "National Estuarine Research Reserves." This designation will present opportunities for coastal wetland-related research, stewardship and education through private, state and federal partnerships. The Bad River-Kakagon Sloughs was designated a "wetland of international significance" in 2012 through the Ramsar Convention.

The Superior Coastal Plain offers excellent opportunities to maintain high-quality examples of many natural community types. The "sandscapes," with their beach, dune, barrens and dry forest communities, are among the best examples known from the western Great Lakes region. Bedrock features include cliffs, glades and ledges, and these provide habitat for a number rare plants, some of them at their extreme range limits. The extensive red clay wetlands in and around the city of Superior host exceptional concentrations of rare plants.

Boreal Forest once covered much of the Superior Coastal Plain, and the landscape presents the state's best opportunities to protect, restore and maintain this natural community. Returning conifers to these forests now largely dominated by aspen is a major opportunity. Collectively, these forests also provide opportunities to increase large trees, cavity trees, coarse woody debris, patches of old-growth forest, large forest patches and a reduction of the hard edge that is now prevalent throughout much of this region. Old-growth hemlock-hardwood forests, now extremely rare anywhere in Wisconsin, occur on several of the Apostle Islands. Browse-sensitive conifers (hemlock, white cedar, Canada yew) are common and reproducing well in these forests.

Several of the major river corridors, such as the Bad and Nemadji, contain stands of floristically rich mesic hardwood forests and the state's northernmost occurrences of floodplain forest. Streams coming out of the deep sand aquifers on the northern Bayfield Peninsula support coldwater assemblages, which include native brook trout and numerous other species.

Significant opportunities to maintain breeding and migratory habitats in both natural and human caused or "surrogate" communities are found in this landscape. For example, colonial bird rookeries are significant and include the only breeding sites on Lake Superior for the WI Endangered Common Tern. Some of the grass-dominated cleared lands in the lacustrine clay plain are extensive for this part of the state and are inhabited by rare and declining grassland birds. These grassland areas offer opportunities for careful assessment to determine which are best to maintain for their habitat value versus increasing the size of forest blocks to increase forest area, reduce forest edge, retain snow cover and water for longer periods and provide habitat for forest interior species that are now relatively scarce in many parts of the Superior Coastal Plain.

1. The text presented here is a summarized version of a longer section developed for the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin.


Superior Coastal Plain 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 Superior Coastal Plain Ecological Landscape. The Superior Coastal Plain LTA map [PDF] 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.

Last Revised: January 23, 2012
Southwest Savanna Southern Lake Michigan Coastal Western Coulees and Ridges Southeast Glacial Plains Central Sand Hills Central Lake Michigan Coastal Central Sand Plains Northern Lake Michigan Coastal Northern Lake Michigan Coastal Northeast Sands Western Prairie North Central Forest Northern Highlands Northwest Lowlands Northwest Sands Northwest Lowlands Superior Coastal Plains Forest Transition