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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 Coulee and Ridges Ecological Landscape

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


9,642 square miles (6,170,674 acres), over 17% of the state, making it the largest of Wisconsin's 16 Ecological Landscapes.


Typical of southern Wisconsin; mean growing season of 145 days, mean annual temperature is 43.7 deg. F, mean annual precipitation is 32.6, and mean annual snowfall is 43 inches. Because it extends over a considerable latitudinal area, the climate varies from north to south. The climate is favorable for agriculture, but steep slopes limit intensive agricultural uses to broad ridgetops and parts of valleys above floodplains. The climate variability, along with the rugged ridge and coulee (valley) topography, numerous microhabitats, and large rivers with broad, complex floodplains, allows for a high diversity of plants and animals.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


Mostly Paleozoic sandstones and dolomites of Cambrian and Ordovician age. Precambrian quartzite occurs in the Baraboo Hills, near the eastern edge of the Ecological Landscape. Thin beds of shale occur with other sedimentary rocks in some areas. Bedrock is exposed as cliffs and, more locally, as talus slopes.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

Geology & Landforms

Characterized by its highly eroded, unglaciated topography with steep sided valleys and ridges, high gradient headwaters streams, and large rivers with extensive, complex floodplains and terraces. Ancient sand dunes occur on some of the broader terraces along the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


Windblown loess of varying thickness; alluvium in the floodplains. Organic soils, especially peats, are rare.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


Dendritic drainage patterns are well-developed in this mostly unglaciated Ecological Landscape. Natural lakes are restricted to the floodplains of large rivers. Large warmwater rivers are especially important here, and include the Wisconsin, Chippewa, and Black. The Mississippi River forms the Ecological Landscape's western boundary. Numerous spring-fed (coldwater) headwaters streams occur here. Coolwater streams are also common.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

Current Landcover

Current vegetation is a mix of forest (41%), agriculture (36%), and grassland (14%) with wetlands (5%) mostly in the river valleys. Primary forest cover is oak-hickory (51%). Maple-basswood forests (28%), dominated by sugar maple, basswood and red maple, are common in areas that were not burned frequently. Bottomland hardwoods (10%) dominated by silver maple, swamp white oak, river birch, ashes, elms, and cottonwood are common within the floodplains of the larger rivers. Relict "northern" mesic conifer forests composed of hemlock, white pine and associated hardwoods such as yellow birch are rare but do occur in areas with cool, moist microclimates. Dry rocky bluffs may support xeric stands of native white pine, sometimes mixed with red or even jack pine. Prairies are now restricted to steep south- or west-facing bluffs, unplowed outwash terraces along the large rivers, and a few other sites. They occupy far less than 1% of the current landscape. Mesic tallgrass prairies are now virtually nonexistent except as very small remnants along rights-of-way or in cemeteries.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

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Socioeconomic Conditions
(based on data from Buffalo, Crawford, Dunn, Eau Claire, Grant, Iowa, Jackson, La Crosse, Monroe, Pepin, Pierce, Richland, Sauk, Trempeleau, and Vernon counties)


614,553, 10.8% of the state total

Population Density

54 persons/sq. mile

Per Capita Income


Important Economic Sectors

Important economic sectors include government, tourism-related, health care and social services, and retail trade in 2007 reflecting high government and tourism-related dependence. Agriculture, forestry, and rural residential development affect the natural resources in the Ecological Landscape most extensively.

Public Ownership

Public ownership in this Ecolgical Landscape is limited (only about 3%) and much of it is associated with the large rivers (i.e. Mississippi, Wisconsin, Chippewa and Black rivers). The state owns and manages several parks (Wyalusing, Wildcat Mountain, Perrot, Devils Lake), scattered Wildlife and Fishery Areas, one Experimental Forest (Coulee), one Demonstration Forest (Douglas Hallock) and some State Natural Areas (Rush Creek Bluffs, Morgan Coulee, Nelson-Trevino Bottoms, Mount Pisgah Hemlock-Hardwoods). The Department of Tourism owns the Kickapoo Reserve in eastern Vernon County. Federal ownership includes Fort McCoy Military Reservation, and two National Wildlife Refuges; Upper Mississippi and Trempealeau. A map showing public land ownership (county, state, and federal) and private lands enrolled in the Forest Tax Programs can be found in the maps appendix at the end of this chapter.

Other Notable Ownerships

The Nature Conservancy owns and manages significant properties in the Baraboo Hills and at several other locations (e.g., Spring Green). Several other non-governmental conservation organizations (NGOs) are active here, including the Mississippi Valley Conservancy, The Prairie Enthusiasts, and the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. The Ho-Chunk Nation owns ecologically valuable lands, such as those along the Kickapoo River in Vernon County, between Wildcat Mountain State Park and the Kickapoo Reserve.

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Considerations for Planning & Management

These include: developing public-private partnerships and creating additional conservation lands in the Ecological Landscape's interior; developing reliable and practical methods of regenerating and maintaining the Ecological Landscape's oak ecosystems (including forests, woodlands, and savannas); broadening the incentives available to private landowners to promote the maintenance and restoration of rare communities such as oak savannas and oak woodlands, as well as underrepresented forest patch sizes and shapes and developmental stages (these include large patches, connecting corridors, and older forests); better land management and land use planning for floodplains, watersheds, and headwaters areas; clarifying successional patterns of forest communities affected by dams and the suppression of fire, and restore functional dynamics where possible; seeking opportunities to reduce habitat fragmentation and isolation, and increase ecological connectivity; incorporating major environmental gradients into conservation projects where possible; earlier detection and better control of invasive species (many are now established in parts of the Western Coulees and Ridges and they must be addressed in survey, management, monitoring and protection plans. Some of the most heavily visited areas in this Ecological Landscape are badly overrun by invasive plants, and control or eradication efforts should be priorities here and be a component of ALL land and water management activities. Such infestations are likely to be spread by tourists and resource professionals alike). Educating the public about the harmful effects of non-native earthworms and other invasive plants and animals is an outreach priority.

Major dams have been constructed on the Mississippi River, significantly altering and fragmenting aquatic habitats there, but long free-flowing stretches of the Wisconsin, Chippewa and Black rivers still exist in this Ecological Landscape.

In many parts of this Ecological Landscape significant developments occur on the relatively level terraces between the floodplains of large rivers and steeply sloping adjacent bluffs. The terraces are intensively used for agriculture and residential development, and as sites for railroad, highway, and utility corridors. Cities and villages now occupy many of the broader terraces, especially where tributaries join the Mississippi River, and residential areas continue to expand on such lands. Opportunities to keep uplands and floodplains connected are relatively scarce and should be regarded as conservation priorities. The sand terraces support rare species and imperiled habitats and therefore have high intrinsic values; they also serve as ecologically important connectors across ecosystems and environmental gradients.

Sand mining has increased greatly in recent years (mostly for use in "fracking" elsewhere in North America). Impacts are currently under review but they could be widespread as Wisconsin has high potential to provide raw materials for this purpose  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 Coulee and Ridges 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."
Acadian FlycatcherEmpidonax virescens3
American WoodcockScolopax minor3
Bald EagleHaliaeetus leucocephalus3
Bell's VireoVireo bellii3
Black-billed CuckooCoccyzus erythropthalmus3
Blue-winged TealAnas discors3
Blue-winged WarblerVermivora pinus3
BobolinkDolichonyx oryzivorus3
Brown ThrasherToxostoma rufum3
CanvasbackAythya valisineria3
Cerulean WarblerDendroica cerulea3
DickcisselSpiza americana3
Eastern MeadowlarkSturnella magna3
Field SparrowSpizella pusilla3
Grasshopper SparrowAmmodramus savannarum3
Great EgretArdea alba3
Henslow's SparrowAmmodramus henslowii3
Hooded WarblerWilsonia citrina3
Kentucky WarblerOporornis formosus3
Lark SparrowChondestes grammacus3
Least FlycatcherEmpidonax minimus3
Lesser ScaupAythya affinis3
Louisiana WaterthrushSeiurus motacilla3
Northern BobwhiteColinus virginianus3
Northern HarrierCircus cyaneus3
Peregrine FalconFalco peregrinus3
Prothonotary WarblerProtonotaria citrea3
Red-headed WoodpeckerMelanerpes erythrocephalus3
Red-shouldered HawkButeo lineatus3
Rusty BlackbirdEuphagus carolinus3
Short-billed DowitcherLimnodromus griseus3
VeeryCatharus fuscescens3
Vesper SparrowPooecetes gramineus3
Western MeadowlarkSturnella neglecta3
Whip-poor-willCaprimulgus vociferus3
Willow FlycatcherEmpidonax traillii3
Wood ThrushHylocichla mustelina3
Worm-eating WarblerHelmitheros vermivorus3
Yellow-billed CuckooCoccyzus americanus3
Yellow-crowned Night-HeronNyctanassa violacea3
American Golden PloverPluvialis dominica2
Black TernChlidonias niger2
Buff-breasted SandpiperTryngites subruficollis2
King RailRallus elegans2
OspreyPandion haliaetus2
Short-eared OwlAsio flammeus2
Solitary SandpiperTringa solitaria2
Upland SandpiperBartramia longicauda2
Whooping CraneGrus americana2
Yellow-throated WarblerDendroica dominica2
American BitternBotaurus lentiginosus1
Barn OwlTyto alba1
Black-throated Blue WarblerDendroica caerulescens1
Canada WarblerWilsonia canadensis1
DunlinCalidris alpina1
Forster's TernSterna forsteri1
Golden-winged WarblerVermivora chrysoptera1
Horned GrebePodiceps auritus1
Hudsonian GodwitLimosa haemastica1
Le Conte's SparrowAmmodramus leconteii1
Loggerhead ShrikeLanius ludovicianus1
Marbled GodwitLimosa fedoa1
Red CrossbillLoxia curvirostra1
RedheadAythya americana1
Trumpeter SwanCygnus buccinator1
WhimbrelNumenius phaeopus1

Scores: 3 = "Significantly Associated," 2 = "Moderately Associated," and 1 = "Minimally Associated."
Black BuffaloIctiobus niger3
Blue SuckerCycleptus elongatus3
Bluntnose DarterEtheostoma chlorosoma3
Crystal DarterAmmocrypta (Crystallaria) asprella3
GoldeyeHiodon alosoides3
Lake SturgeonAcipenser fulvescens3
Ozark MinnowNotropis nubilus3
PaddlefishPolyodon spathula3
Pallid ShinerNotropis amnis3
Redside DaceClinostomus elongatus3
River RedhorseMoxostoma carinatum3
Shoal Chub (Speckled Chub)Macrhybopsis hyostoma3
Starhead TopminnowFundulus dispar3
Western Sand DarterAmmocrypta clara3
Gilt DarterPercina evides2
American EelAnguilla rostrata1
Lake ChubsuckerErimyzon sucetta1
Least DarterEtheostoma microperca1
Redfin ShinerLythrurus umbratilis1
Skipjack HerringAlosa chrysochloris1

Scores: 3 = "Significantly Associated," 2 = "Moderately Associated," and 1 = "Minimally Associated."
Reptiles and AmphibiansScore
Four-toed SalamanderHemidactylium scutatum3
Gray RatsnakePantherophis spiloides3
Northern Cricket FrogAcris crepitans3
Pickerel FrogRana palustris3
MudpuppyNecturus maculosus1

Scores: 3 = "Significantly Associated," 2 = "Moderately Associated," and 1 = "Minimally Associated."
Northern Long-eared BatMyotis septentrionalis3
Eastern Red BatLasiurus borealis2
Franklin's Ground SquirrelSpermophilus franklinii2
Hoary BatLasiurus cinereus2
Prairie VoleMicrotus ochrogaster2
Silver-haired BatLasionycteris noctivagans2
Woodland VoleMicrotus pinetorum2
Gray WolfCanis lupus1
Water ShrewSorex palustris1
White-tailed JackrabbitLepus townsendii1

Community opportunities

Natural community management opportunities

The Western Coulee and Ridges 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

The Western Coulees and Ridges Ecological Landscape offers the best opportunities in the state to maintain many of southern Wisconsin's natural communities. Many rare species have been documented here due to the diversity, scale, types, condition and context of the natural communities present.

Forests can be managed and conserved here at virtually all scales, including areas up to hundreds, or even thousands, of acres. Oak forests are more abundant here then any other ecological landscape, mesic maple-basswood forests are also widespread, and some of the Upper Midwest's most extensive stands of Floodplain Forest occur here along major rivers. All of these forest types can provide critical breeding and/or migratory habitat for significant populations of native plants and animals. Maintaining large blocks of these forest types, including areas with combinations of these types, is a major opportunity. Since much of the forested acreage is privately owned, there are opportunities to work with private landowners, looking for places to combine efforts and plan on a much larger scale than an individual property.

Less common natural communities also provide excellent management opportunities here. Conifer relicts, by definition, are almost entirely restricted to the Western Coulees and Ridges, with lesser management opportunities present in the Southwest Savanna. Fire-dependent oak ecosystems are well-represented here include Oak Openings, Oak Barrens, Oak Woodland and dry to mesic oak forests. Bluff prairies and sand prairies are better represented in this Ecological Landscape than anywhere else in Wisconsin and probably better than anywhere else in the Upper Midwest. These fire-dependant communities could be managed in a continuum with savanna and forest communities, wherever possible.

Man-made habitats such as "surrogate grasslands" can be important for many species by increasing the effective size and reducing isolation of small remnant prairies or savannas. Large open habitats can be critical for area-sensitive grassland birds and others. Properly sited and managed dredge spoil islands can provide important habitat for herptiles and birds, especially along the Mississippi River, which has been heavily altered by dam construction, diminished water quality and the impacts of invasive species.

Large warmwater rivers are critical for fish, herptiles, birds and invertebrates, especially mussels and some groups of aquatic insects. The diverse habitats associated with the large river corridors include the main channels, running sloughs, oxbow lakes and ponds, various floodplain wetland communities, terraces with sand prairies and barrens and adjoining mesic to xeric forested bluffs. Managing this mosaic can protect ecotones and connectivity, representing opportunities that are unavailable or limited elsewhere in the state. Other important aquatic features include high concentrations of coldwater and coolwater streams, spring runs and spring seepages.

Bedrock features are important throughout the Western Coulees and Ridges and include cliffs, caves, talus slopes and Algific Talus Slopes. Some bats and reptiles are dependent on caves, tunnels and abandoned mines as roost sites and hibernacula.

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


Western Coulee and Ridges 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 Coulee and Ridges Ecological Landscape. The Western Coulee and Ridges 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.

  • 222La01. Red Cedar/Chippewa Valley Trains
  • 222La03. Knapp Loess Hills
  • 222Lb02. Eau Claire Sandstone Hills
  • 222La02. Hay River Sandstone Hills
  • 222Lb03. Eau Claire/Lowes Valley Trains
  • 222Lc12. Eroded pre_Illinoian Ground Moraines
  • 222La04. Chippewa River Bottoms
  • 222Lc08. Mississippi River Valley Train-North
  • 222Lb05. Boone Valleys and Hills
  • 222Lc14. Trempealeau Silty Valleys
  • 222Lb07. Trempealeau Sandstone Hills
  • 222Lb04. Buffalo Hills
  • 222Lc13. Rountree Ridges, Tunnel City Hills, and Valleys-North
  • 222Lb06. Northfield Low Hills
  • 222Lc16. Rountree Ridges, Tunnel City Hills, and Valleys-South
  • 222Ld01. Richland Ridge
  • 222Lc15. Viroqua Ridge
  • 222Ld03. West Baraboo Ridge
  • 222Ld05. East Baraboo Ridge
  • 222Ld06. Baraboo Basin Moraines
  • 222Ld04. Baraboo Basin Floodplain and Terraces
  • 222Ld02. LeFarge Hills and Valleys
  • 222Lc18. Hills and Valleys - Wisconsin River Drainage
  • 222Lc17. Mississippi River Valley Train-South
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