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Wild Rice Marsh

State Rank: S3     Global Rank: G3G4   what are these ranks?


Detailed Community Description from Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin

General natural community overview

Counties shaded blue have documented occurrences for Wild Rice Marsh in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database.

Wild rice marsh is closely related to the emergent marsh community but has wild rice (Zizania spp.) as the dominant macrophyte. Substrates supporting wild rice usually consist of poorly consolidated, semi-organic sediments. Water fertility is low to moderate, and a slow current is present. Wild rice beds have great cultural significance to native peoples and are important wildlife habitats. As an annual, the density of wild rice may vary considerably from year to year. Based on traditional ecological knowledge of regularly harvested rice stands, rice density in a given waterbody often varies on a roughly four year cycle with one "good" year, one "bad" year, and two moderate years on average, though this may be altered by a host of factors such as sedimentation, excess nutrients, invasive carp, fungal pathogens, or flooding or hail damage during rice's sensitive floating-leaf stage.

Defining Characteristics and Similar Communities

Wild rice marshes are closely related to emergent marshes but are classified as distinct due to its dominance by the annual grass wild rice (more than 50% relative cover compared to other emergent species). In contrast, emergent marshes are dominated by robust emergent perennials such as cattails, bulrushes, and bur-reeds. Wild rice marshes may also resemble floating-leaved marshes early in the growing season during rice's floating-leaf stage but are classified separately. Submergent marshes may also intergrade with wild rice marshes and may be particularly difficult to differentiate during years when rice is sparse compared to a good rice year.

Rare animals

Species of Greatest Conservation Need

Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan graphic

The following Species of Greatest Conservation Need are listed according to their level of association with the Wild Rice Marsh natural community type, based on the findings in Wisconsin's 2015 Wildlife Action Plan.

Scores: 3 = high association, 2 = moderate association, and 1 = low association. See the key to association scores for complete definitions.

Mink FrogLithobates septentrionalis2
Pickerel FrogLithobates palustris1

A Predaceous Diving BeetleAgabus aeruginosus1

American Black DuckAnas rubripes2
Black TernChlidonias niger2
Least BitternIxobrychus exilis2
Yellow-headed BlackbirdXanthocephalus xanthocephalus2
American BitternBotaurus lentiginosus1
Forster's TernSterna forsteri1
Great EgretArdea alba1
Purple MartinProgne subis1
Red-necked GrebePodiceps grisegena1
Rufa Red KnotCalidris canutus rufa1
Yellow RailCoturnicops noveboracensis1

Dragonflies and damselfliesScore
Mottled DarnerAeshna clepsydra1
Spangled SkimmerLibellula cyanea1
Swamp DarnerEpiaeschna heros1

Big Brown BatEptesicus fuscus2
Little Brown BatMyotis lucifugus2
Tricolored BatPerimyotis subflavus1

Blanding's TurtleEmydoidea blandingii3
Plains GartersnakeThamnophis radix1

Please see Section 2. Approach and Methods of the Wildlife Action Plan to learn how this information was developed.


The following Ecological Landscapes have the best opportunities to manage for Wild Rice Marsh, based on the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin Handbook.

Map of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin.

Major (3 on map)
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.

Important (2 on map)
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.

Present (1 on map)
The natural community occurs in the Ecological Landscape, but better management opportunities appear to exist in other parts of the state.


Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan graphic

What are conservation actions?

Conservation actions respond to issues or threats, which adversely affect species of greatest conservation need (SGCN) or their habitats. Besides actions such as restoring wetlands or planting resilient tree species in northern communities, research, surveys and monitoring are also among conservation actions described in the WWAP because lack of information can threaten our ability to successfully preserve and care for natural resources.

Threats/issues and conservations actions for natural communities


The following are additional considerations for Wild Rice Marsh in Ecological Landscapes with opportunities for protection, restoration, and/or management. For more information, see the Wildlife Action Plan.

North Central Forest

Invasive plants (e.g., purple loosestrife) can replace native plants. Dams have raised water levels and affected this community type in some sites but created marsh habitat in locations farther upstream. Wild rice should be protected and restored where appropriate. Wabikon Lake (Forest County) supports a valuable wild rice population and Swamp Creek (Forest County) contains important wild rice stands.

Northern Highland

This Ecological Landscape contains some unique and sensitive marsh types. It is one of the state's most important for the maintenance and protection of wild rice beds. Large areas in public ownership help to ensure the viability of this community here. Wild rice still occurs on numerous lakes; however, intensive lakeshore development has significantly degraded some areas. Tribal members and other citizens gather significant quantities of wild rice here. Wild rice should be protected and restored where possible, seeking partnerships with Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission and other entities as appropriate. Aurora Lake and Wetlands (Vilas County) supports a healthy wild rice population.

Northwest Sands

Cranberry operations, though currently limited here, have the potential to decrease the amount of wetland habitat, alter natural communities, and affect local hydrology and water quality. An appreciable number of lakes still support viable wild rice beds. Some of the larger marshes in this Ecological Landscape occur along impounded portions of rivers or small streams. Protect and restore wild rice where appropriate, in coordination with tribal projects if possible.

Southeast Glacial Plains

Invasive plants (e.g., Phragmites, reed canary grass, purple loosestrife, flowering rush, glossy buckthorn, narrow-leaved cattail) can replace native plants and affect aquatic communities. Many marshes are becoming highly dominated by cattails. Botulism is a concern when oxygen content is low. Remaining lead shot in hard-bottomed water bodies still occasionally results in poisoning. Carp are a threat, and so are effects of carp control efforts. There are continuing effects of past management (e.g., draining and filling marshes, loss of wild rice). This Ecological Landscape formerly included many marshes that supported wild rice. The Wolf River Wildlife Area (Winnebago County) still supports a good population of rice. Wild rice should be restored if possible (although most systems are too hydrologically altered and sediment-filled to support wild rice). Watersheds should be managed to control runoff from surrounding agricultural areas that may contribute nutrients and sediment. Drawdowns for shorebird management are effective, but the needs of amphibians and reptiles should be considered; consider timing drawdowns to reduce the threat of botulism. These sites should be monitored to determine whether management is maintaining native diversity and the effects of non-native cattails should be researched.

Superior Coastal Plain

Disturbance from recreational powerboats coming into rivers from Lake Superior can cause sedimentation and physical damage to aquatic plants as well as problematic social interactions. Eutrophication (in St. Louis River estuary, Port Wing) can cause detrimental changes to community structure. Invasive plants (e.g., purple loosestrife, Phragmites, reed canary grass) have replaced native plants in some areas. Soil erosion and sedimentation from uplands into water bodies is a particular threat in this Ecological Landscape due to the erodible soils. Agriculture, impermeable surfaces, and lack of conifers contribute to peakflow episodes during spring snowmelt. Unsustainable forest management practices can result in soil erosion and water quality issues. Wild rice should be restored where possible; rice beds in the Kakagon Sloughs (Ashland County) should be protected and maintained. Uplands within the watershed should be reforested, restoring conifers where possible. Best Management Practices and other sustainable forest management practices should be used to limit detrimental soil and water effects. Adaptive management techniques should be used to restore structure and composition. More information on land use in the watershed should be gathered and effects on peakflows into emergent aquatic community sites should be researched.

Western Coulee and Ridges

Development on ridges above rivers can alter shoreline habitat and increase erosion. Rip-rapping, levees, seawalls, and dikes have been constructed (these have some positive effects in protecting marshes behind dikes). Invasive plants (e.g., reed canary grass, purple loosestrife) can replace native plants. Invasive animals (e.g., common carp) are also a problem for this community type. An astounding abundance of dams in this Ecological Landscape raised water levels to eliminate this community type in some sites, but created marsh habitat in other locations. Dams also change timing and duration of water level fluctuations. Barge traffic on the Mississippi requires dredging and disposal of materials, which stirs up bottom sediments, and results in wave impacts. Past drainage for agricultural uses, and filling for roads, railroads, and industrial sites, reduced marsh habitat. Competing economic interests limit opportunities for this type in the Ecological Landscape, especially in the Mississippi River valley. Wild rice should be protected and restored where appropriate. The Mississippi River corridor is of continental importance to migratory waterfowl. This community is found primarily in the backwaters of large rivers (e.g., Mississippi (Grant, Crawford, Pepin, Pierce, Trempealeau Counties), Chippewa (Pepin and Buffalo Counties), Wisconsin (Crawford and Grant Counties), and Black Rivers (LaCrosse County)). This community should be managed as a complex with floodplain forest, submergent marsh, wet meadow, shrub-carr, and adjoining uplands. Advocating for river flow management and other actions that are more beneficial to emergent plant communities, fish, and wildlife should continue.


Wild Rice Marsh Photos

Wild Rice Marsh Photo

The S basin of Allequash Lake is shallow and supports dense stands of wild rice in years when conditions are favorable. Birds nesting in these wetlands include Black Tern, Black Duck, and Sora.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Wild Rice Marsh Photo

This wild rice marsh borders a sluggish stretch of a warmwater stream in the NHAL State Forest. Uplands adjoining the rice beds support an old-growth stand of mesic hemlock-hardwood forest.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Wild Rice Marsh Photo

Stretches of the main channels of the Bad and Kakagon Rivers are bordered by extensive beds of wild rice and other emergent aquatics.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Wild Rice Marsh Photo

Wild rice marsh dominated by Zizania aquatica (annual wild rice/Indian rice/southern wild rice) in Green Lake County.

Photo by Brenton Butterfield.

Wild Rice Marsh Photo

Wild rice marsh dominated by northern wild rice (Zizania palustris) in Vilas County.

Photo by Brenton Butterfield.

Note: photos are provided to illustrate various examples of natural community types. A single photograph cannot represent the range of variability inherent in a given community type. Some of these photos explicitly illustrate unusual and distinctive community variants. The community photo galleries are a work in progress that we will expand and improve in the future.

Last revised: Tuesday, August 30, 2022