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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

Western Prairie Ecological Landscape

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


1,090 square miles (697,633 acres), representing 1.9% of the land area of the State of Wisconsin. It is the third smallest Ecological Landscape in the state; however, this Ecological Landscape (like the Northwest Lowlands) is part of a larger ecoregion that extends west into Minnesota.


Typical of southern Wisconsin; mean growing season of 145 days, mean annual temperature is 43.7 deg. F, mean annual precipitation is 32.1, and mean annual snowfall is 45.4 inches. The climate and topography was favorable to frequent fires that resulted in prairie vegetation occurring in almost a third of the area prior to Euro-American times. The length of the growing season, adequate precipitation, and favorable temperatures make the climate favorable for agriculture, which is prevalent here.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


Bedrock was deposited during the Paleozoic Era (including the Cambrian and Ordovician Periods), and is dominantly marine sandstone and dolomite. Precambrian igneous and metamorphic bedrock lies below the Paleozoic deposits. The walls of the Apple River Canyon feature exposures of Cambrian sandstone, Cambrian shale, and Cambrian and Ordovician dolomites. Similar exposures occur along the lower Kinnickinnic River, below the city of River Falls.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

Geology & Landforms

The Landscape is entirely glaciated. Major landforms are rolling till plain, with end moraine in the northwest and small areas of outwash.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


Soils are predominantly formed in loamy till glacial deposits, while some are in outwash. A loess cap of aeolian silt is 6 to 48 inches thick over the surface. The dominant soil is well drained and loamy with a silt loam surface, moderate permeability, and moderate available water capacity.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


The Lower St. Croix River forms the western boundary of this Ecological Landscape (however, note that this Ecological Landscape is part of a larger ecological region, Subsection 222 Md, which extends west into Minnesota). Other important though much smaller rivers include the Apple, Kinnickinnic, and Willow. Most of the rivers drain westward to the St. Croix, with several draining south directly into the Mississippi, and a few flowing southeast to the Chippewa. Inland lakes, mostly seepage lakes and ponds, are most common in the northwestern part of the Landscape, in an area known informally as Wisconsin's "Prairie Pothole Region". There are multiple dams on the Willow River, and the Kinnickinnic has been dammed at River Falls. Many wetlands have been lost or severely altered by agricultural activities, which have been widespread and intensive in this productive Landscape.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

Current Landcover

Almost half of the current land cover is agricultural crops and about one third of the area is grasslands, with smaller amounts of forest. open water, open wetlands, and urban areas. The major forest types are maple-basswood and oak-hickory, with lesser amounts of lowland hardwoods. Native coniferous forests are rare, and are limited to a few tamarack swamps and small scattered stands of pine on steep rocky slopes.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

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Socioeconomic Conditions
(based on data from St. Croix and Pierce counties)


120,708, 2.2% of the state total

Population Density

77 persons/ sq. mile

Per Capita Income


Important Economic Sectors

Government (14.6%); tourism-related (12.6%); manufacturing (non-wood) (11.6%); and retail trade (10.2%) sectors provided the most jobs in 2007. Agriculture and urban development affect the natural resources of this Ecological Landscape the most.

Public Ownership

Only three percent of the Western Prairie is in public ownership, much of it associated with the St. Croix, Kinnickinnic, and Willow rivers. Federal lands include the southern end of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and several Federal Waterfowl Production Areas. State-owned lands include Wildlife Areas, Parks, Fishery Areas and Natural Areas. Examples include St. Croix Islands and Cylon Marsh State Wildlife Areas, Kinnickinnic and Willow River State Parks, and Apple River Canyon State Natural Area. 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 Kinnickinnic River Land Trust has been actively protecting lands in northwestern Pierce County. Several other NGOs have been protecting lands along the St. Croix River, in Polk and St. Croix Counties. Some of these projects have been the result of successful public-private partnerships.

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Considerations for Planning & Management

Agriculture is the dominant land use, but in recent years residential development has increased dramatically in the western part of the Ecological Landscape along and near the St. Croix River. Many new residents commute to the Twin Cities for work. Public lands are limited, making management at large scales difficult. Prairie remnants are few and most are isolated. Where possible, these should be embedded within surrogate grasslands such as Waterfowl Production Areas, Conservation Reserve Program lands, or other open covertypes to meet the needs of wide-ranging grassland wildlife.

The lower St. Croix River supports many rare aquatic species, but recreational pressure is high and increasing, and residential development is occurring in most areas not yet protected as part of the National Scenic Riverway. Maintaining or restoring high water quality and protecting instream and adjoining wetland and terrestrial habitats are conservation priorities for this Ecological Landscape.

Residents along the Kinnickinnic River in Pierce County have worked together and received grants to restore and manage prairie and savanna remnants, and protect populations of rare species. Similar partnerships have worked in areas along the St. Croix River, and could serve as models for conservation work elsewhere.  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 Western Prairie 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."
Blue-winged TealAnas discors3
Blue-winged WarblerVermivora pinus3
BobolinkDolichonyx oryzivorus3
Brown ThrasherToxostoma rufum3
DickcisselSpiza americana3
Eastern MeadowlarkSturnella magna3
Field SparrowSpizella pusilla3
Grasshopper SparrowAmmodramus savannarum3
Henslow's SparrowAmmodramus henslowii3
Least FlycatcherEmpidonax minimus3
Loggerhead ShrikeLanius ludovicianus3
Marbled GodwitLimosa fedoa3
Northern HarrierCircus cyaneus3
Prothonotary WarblerProtonotaria citrea3
Red-headed WoodpeckerMelanerpes erythrocephalus3
Short-billed DowitcherLimnodromus griseus3
Trumpeter SwanCygnus buccinator3
Vesper SparrowPooecetes gramineus3
Western MeadowlarkSturnella neglecta3
Willow FlycatcherEmpidonax traillii3
Wood ThrushHylocichla mustelina3
American BitternBotaurus lentiginosus2
American Golden PloverPluvialis dominica2
American WoodcockScolopax minor2
Black TernChlidonias niger2
Buff-breasted SandpiperTryngites subruficollis2
CanvasbackAythya valisineria2
Cerulean WarblerDendroica cerulea2
DunlinCalidris alpina2
Great EgretArdea alba2
Hudsonian GodwitLimosa haemastica2
King RailRallus elegans2
Le Conte's SparrowAmmodramus leconteii2
Lesser ScaupAythya affinis2
Louisiana WaterthrushSeiurus motacilla2
Red-necked GrebePodiceps grisegena2
Rusty BlackbirdEuphagus carolinus2
Short-eared OwlAsio flammeus2
Solitary SandpiperTringa solitaria2
Upland SandpiperBartramia longicauda2
VeeryCatharus fuscescens2
Acadian FlycatcherEmpidonax virescens1
Bald EagleHaliaeetus leucocephalus1
Barn OwlTyto alba1
Bell's VireoVireo bellii1
Black-billed CuckooCoccyzus erythropthalmus1
Black-throated Blue WarblerDendroica caerulescens1
Canada WarblerWilsonia canadensis1
Golden-winged WarblerVermivora chrysoptera1
Hooded WarblerWilsonia citrina1
Horned GrebePodiceps auritus1
OspreyPandion haliaetus1
Red-shouldered HawkButeo lineatus1
WhimbrelNumenius phaeopus1
Whip-poor-willCaprimulgus vociferus1
Whooping CraneGrus americana1
Yellow-billed CuckooCoccyzus americanus1

Scores: 3 = "Significantly Associated," 2 = "Moderately Associated," and 1 = "Minimally Associated."
Crystal DarterAmmocrypta (Crystallaria) asprella3
Blue SuckerCycleptus elongatus2
Greater RedhorseMoxostoma valenciennesi2
Lake SturgeonAcipenser fulvescens2
River RedhorseMoxostoma carinatum2
Western Sand DarterAmmocrypta clara2
American EelAnguilla rostrata1
Black BuffaloIctiobus niger1
GoldeyeHiodon alosoides1
PaddlefishPolyodon spathula1

Scores: 3 = "Significantly Associated," 2 = "Moderately Associated," and 1 = "Minimally Associated."
Reptiles and AmphibiansScore
MudpuppyNecturus maculosus2
Pickerel FrogRana palustris2
Four-toed SalamanderHemidactylium scutatum1

Scores: 3 = "Significantly Associated," 2 = "Moderately Associated," and 1 = "Minimally Associated."
Franklin's Ground SquirrelSpermophilus franklinii2
Prairie VoleMicrotus ochrogaster2
White-tailed JackrabbitLepus townsendii2
Eastern Red BatLasiurus borealis1
Gray WolfCanis lupus1
Hoary BatLasiurus cinereus1
Northern Long-eared BatMyotis septentrionalis1
Silver-haired BatLasionycteris noctivagans1
Water ShrewSorex palustris1
Woodland VoleMicrotus pinetorum1

Community opportunities

Natural community management opportunities

The Western Prairie 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

Grassland management at multiple scales is a major opportunity in the Western Prairie. Small, scattered remnants of native prairie exist here along with substantial areas of "surrogate grassland" that now provide increasingly critical habitat for many grassland species, especially birds. The largest grassland management project in this Ecological Landscape is the Western Prairie Habitat Restoration Area in St. Croix and Polk counties. By managing at multiple scales, large blocks of surrogate grassland, unplowed prairie pastures, small native prairie remnants on bluffs or within rights-of-way and working agricultural lands can all play key roles in the conservation and restoration of the grassland ecosystem that historically covered most of this ecological landscape. Ponds and lakes border or are embedded within some of the areas with high grassland management potential; these add great value for species that nest near or over water and for migrants that use open wetlands and water.

The Lower St. Croix River supports an exceptionally high diversity of aquatic organisms, including fish, mussels and other invertebrates. Many rare species have been documented here, and several of the mussels are globally rare. The river's floodplain contains good examples of emergent marsh, wet prairie and floodplain forest. The forested slopes of the St. Croix Valley contain rich mesic hardwood forests, dry oak forests and a few stands of natural white pine. Remnant bluff prairies and oak savannas occur on the uppermost slopes above the St. Croix. Migratory bird use of the St. Croix River valley is high, and the river corridor also provides nesting and wintering habitat for many common and rare birds, including species of conservation concern. Protecting the hydrology and water quality of the St. Croix and its tributaries is critical, and assessing areas of high value to birds and other species is an important step in protecting and properly managing the best habitats.

Other important management opportunities include the Kinnickinnic River Corridor; the Apple River Canyon; scattered prairie, savanna and forest remnants (including mesic, dry-mesic and dry forests); coldwater and coolwater streams; and miscellaneous opportunities to protect more isolated populations of rare species and features not covered by the previously mentioned categories.

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


Western Prairie 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 Western Prairie Ecological Landscape. The Western Prairie 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