Critical Habitat Areas
Assuring Public Rights in Waters of the State
Our state Constitution guarantees that the waters of Wisconsin are held in trust
for all of the state's citizens. All Wisconsin citizens have the right to boat,
fish, hunt, ice skate, and swim on navigable waters, as well as enjoy the natural
scenic beauty of navigable waters, and enjoy the quality and quantity of water that
supports those uses.
Wisconsin has developed broad regulations related to structures in and alterations
to our public waters. These regulations have been developed to make sure that we
comply with our state Constitution, statutes and relevant legal case law. In 2004
the Legislature restructured the State's water regulations. These simplified regulations
- Exemptions - activities that do not need permits
- General Permits - establishes standards and minimizes Department review
- Individual Permits - complex projects that require more detail review
Critical Habitat Designation - The Program
Every waterbody has critical habitat - those areas that are most important
to the overall health of the aquatic plants and animals. Remarkably, eighty percent
of the plants and animals on the state's endangered and threatened species list
spend all or part of their life cycle within the near shore zone. As many as ninety
percent of the living things in lakes and rivers are found along the shallow margins
and shores. Wisconsin law mandates special protections for these critical habitats.
Critical Habitat Designation is a program that recognizes those areas and maps them
so that everyone knows which areas are most vulnerable to impacts from human activity.
A critical habitat designation assists waterfront owners by identifying these areas
up front, so they can design their waterfront projects to protect habitat and ensure
the long-term health of the lake they where they live.
Areas are designated as Critical Habitat if they have Public Rights Features, Sensitive
areas or both. Public rights features (defined in NR 1.06, Wis. Adm. Code) include
- Fish and wildlife habitat;
- Physical features of lakes and streams that ensure protection of water quality;
- Reaches of bank, shore or bed that are predominantly natural in appearance;
- Navigation thoroughfares;
Critical Habitat Designation - The Process
Selection of waters for Critical Habitat Designation is generally done as part of
the Department's biennial work planning process. This selection contemplates three
- quality of the resource;
- amount of knowledge and information the Department holds regarding the water body;
- current and future risks of the resource to riparian development and in-lake activities.
After a lake is selected, DNR field staff, compile and review the most current scientific
data about the water body. Data is also solicited from local units of government,
conservation organizations, federal agencies, local businesses and anyone who may
have resource knowledge and information. This information is used to assemble maps
to identify targets of focus related to fish, wildlife, endangered resources, and
Next, DNR staff conduct field work and surveys to identify public rights features
on the lake and delineate their extent. The resulting maps and supporting data are
compiled into a draft Critical Habitat Designation report, which is posted on the
Department's website for public review. DNR must also give notice of the draft report
to the local media, the county clerk, and legislators. If requested or if concerns
are anticipated, DNR typically holds informational meetings to answer questions
and receive comments. Once public comment is received and the report is complete,
Critical Habitat Designations are posted on the DNR website.
How does this program affect Waterfront Owners?
Critical Habitat Designations provide advance information to waterfront owners,
to clarify the regulations that will apply when they want to do a construction project
or activity along their shoreline. If a project is proposed in a designated Critical
Habitat area, the permit jurisdiction or the permit process may change. This allows
DNR to ensure that proposed projects will not harm these sensitive resources.