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Ryan O'Connor
Natural Heritage Inventory Ecologist

Wet-mesic Prairie

State Rank: S2     Global Rank: G2   what are these ranks?


Detailed Community Description from Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin

General natural community overview

Counties shaded blue have documented occurrences for Wet-mesic Prairie in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database.

This herbaceous grassland community is dominated by tall grasses, including big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Canada bluejoint grass (Calamagrostis canadensis), cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), and Canada wild-rye (Elymus canadensis). The forb component is diverse and includes azure aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), eastern shooting-star (Primula meadia), saw-tooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), prairie blazing-star (Liatris pycnostachya), prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), prairie coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), rosinweed and prairie-dock (Silphium integrifolium and S. terebinthinaceum), late and stiff goldenrods (Solidago gigantea and S. rigida), and Culver's-root (Veronicastrum virginicum). This community type was common historically but now is rare. Well over 99% of our tallgrass prairies - including wet-mesic prairies - have been destroyed.

Wet-mesic prairies sometimes occurred in large wetland complexes with wet prairies, southern sedge meadows, calcareous fens, and emergent marshes. They were most abundant on level or gently rolling glacial moraine or outwash landforms where there were few natural barriers to wildfire, and where the upland vegetation was composed mostly of fire-dependent communities such as mesic prairies and oak openings.

Defining Characteristics and Similar Communities

Wet-mesic prairies are characterized by their tall prairie grasses and forbs occurring on mineral soils in wetland complexes. Soils are usually loam, silt loam, or silty clay loam, which are sometimes overlain by a thin layer (<12 inches) of sandier soil. They can be distinguished from wet prairies by the greater prevalence of forbs associated with mesic and dry-mesic prairies such as yellow coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida), and greater depth to water table. In contrast, wet prairies tend to have a higher water table and higher prevalence of wetland forbs such as Joe-Pye-weed (Eutrochium maculatum), boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), common water hemlock (Cicuta maculata), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and water smartweed (Persicaria amphibia). Loamy soils set wet-mesic prairies apart from other similar wetland communities including calcareous fens and southern sedge meadows, both of which occur on organic soils (peat and/or marl). In addition, wet-mesic prairies are dominated by grasses in terms of biomass, where sedge meadows are dominated by sedges.

Wet-mesic prairies can be distinguished from mesic prairies because they are in wetland complexes, have heavier soils, and a higher prevalence of wetland plants, whereas mesic prairies tend to occur on well-drained soils (especially with loess) in level to rolling uplands and have a higher prevalence of upland forbs such as leadplant (Amorpha canescens), heath and smooth asters (Symphyotrichum ericoides, S. laeve), prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata), prairie sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus), rattlesnake-master (Eryngium yuccifolium), and spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis).

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 Wet-mesic Prairie 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.

Pickerel FrogLithobates palustris3
Blanchard's Cricket FrogAcris blanchardi2

Ants, wasps, and beesScore
Silphium Terminal Gall WaspAntistrophus silphii3
American Bumble BeeBombus pensylvanicus1
Confusing Bumble BeeBombus perplexus1
Rusty-patched Bumble BeeBombus affinis1
Yellow Bumble BeeBombus fervidus1

Aquatic and terrestrial snailsScore
Transparent Vitrine SnailVitrina angelicae1
Wing SnaggletoothGastrocopta procera1

A Colaspis Leaf BeetleColaspis suggona3
A Pear-shaped WeevilFallapion bischoffi3
A Leaf BeetleCryptocephalus venustus2
A Pear-shaped WeevilCoelocephalapion decoloratum2
A Leaf BeetlePachybrachis atomarius1
A Leaf BeetleCryptocephalus cuneatus1
A Leaf BeetleBassareus mammifer1
A Leaf BeetleAltica litigata1
A Straight-snouted WeevilEutrichapion huron1

BobolinkDolichonyx oryzivorus3
Greater Prairie-ChickenTympanuchus cupido3
Short-eared OwlAsio flammeus3
Bell's VireoVireo bellii2
Brewer's BlackbirdEuphagus cyanocephalus2
Eastern MeadowlarkSturnella magna2
Henslow's SparrowAmmodramus henslowii2
Le Conte's SparrowAmmodramus leconteii2
Long-eared OwlAsio otus2
Northern BobwhiteColinus virginianus2
Upland SandpiperBartramia longicauda2
Yellow-breasted ChatIcteria virens2
American WoodcockScolopax minor1
Black-necked StiltHimantopus mexicanus1
Common NighthawkChordeiles minor1
DickcisselSpiza americana1
Loggerhead ShrikeLanius ludovicianus1
Purple MartinProgne subis1
Sharp-tailed GrouseTympanuchus phasianellus1

Butterflies and mothsScore
Liatris Borer MothPapaipema beeriana3
Poweshiek SkipperlingOarisma poweshiek3
Silphium Borer MothPapaipema silphii3
Regal FritillarySpeyeria idalia2
A Noctuid MothBagisara gulnare1
Byssus SkipperProblema byssus1
Gray CopperLycaena dione1
Swamp MetalmarkCalephelis muticum1

Prairie CrayfishProcambarus gracilis2

Grasshoppers and alliesScore
Bog ConeheadNeoconocephalus lyristes2
Delicate Meadow KatydidOrchelimum delicatum2
Grizzly Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus punctulatus1
Short-winged GrasshopperDichromorpha viridis1
Spotted-winged GrasshopperOrphulella pelidna1

Leafhoppers and true bugsScore
A LeafhopperFlexamia prairiana3
A PlanthopperMyndus ovatus3
Piglet BugAphelonema simplex3
Red-tailed Prairie LeafhopperAflexia rubranura3
A LeafhopperDestria crocea2
A LeafhopperParaphlepsius nebulosus2
A LeafhopperLimotettix elegans2
A LeafhopperLimotettix pseudosphagneticus2
Yellow Loosestrife LeafhopperErythroneura carbonata2
A LeafhopperMemnonia panzeri1
A LeafhopperCuerna sayi1
A LeafhopperLaevicephalus vannus1
A LeafhopperParaphlepsius altus1
An Issid PlanthopperFitchiella robertsonii1
An Issid PlanthopperBruchomorpha extensa1

Big Brown BatEptesicus fuscus3
Franklin's Ground SquirrelPoliocitellus franklinii3
Little Brown BatMyotis lucifugus2
Tricolored BatPerimyotis subflavus1

Butler's GartersnakeThamnophis butleri3
Eastern MassasaugaSistrurus catenatus3
Plains GartersnakeThamnophis radix3
Blanding's TurtleEmydoidea blandingii2
Western RibbonsnakeThamnophis proximus2
Wood TurtleGlyptemys insculpta2
Eastern RibbonsnakeThamnophis sauritus1

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

Rare plants

The Natural Heritage Inventory has developed scores indicating the degree to which each of Wisconsin's rare plant species is associated with a particular natural community or ecological landscape. This information is similar to that found in the Wildlife Action Plan for animals. As this is a work in progress, we welcome your suggestions and feedback.

Scores: 3 = "significantly associated," 2 = "moderately associated," and 1 = "minimally associated."
Scientific Name Common Name Score
Agalinis auriculata Earleaf Foxglove 3
Agrimonia parviflora Swamp Agrimony 2
Anticlea elegans ssp. glaucus White Camas 3
Arnoglossum plantagineum Prairie Indian-plantain 3
Arnoglossum reniforme Great Indian-plantain 2
Asclepias hirtella Green Milkweed 3
Asclepias purpurascens Purple Milkweed 2
Asclepias sullivantii Prairie Milkweed 3
Camassia scilloides Wild Hyacinth 3
Carex festucacea Fescue Sedge 1
Clinopodium arkansanum Low Calamint 3
Cuscuta glomerata Rope Dodder 3
Cuscuta polygonorum Knotweed Dodder 2
Cypripedium candidum White Lady's-slipper 3
Cypripedium parviflorum var. makasin Northern Yellow Lady's-slipper 3
Eleocharis compressa var. compressa Flat-stemmed Spike-rush 3
Fimbristylis puberula Chestnut Sedge 3
Houstonia caerulea Azure Bluets 1
Hypericum mutilum Slender St. John's-wort 2
Hypericum sphaerocarpum Round-fruited St. John's Wort 2
Juncus vaseyi Vasey's Rush 2
Phlox glaberrima ssp. interior Smooth Phlox 3
Platanthera flava var. herbiola Pale Green Orchid 2
Platanthera leucophaea Eastern Prairie White Fringed Orchid 3
Polygala incarnata Pink Milkwort 2
Polytaenia nuttallii Prairie Parsley 2
Spiranthes magnicamporum Great Plains Lady's-tresses 2
Thalictrum revolutum Waxleaf Meadowrue 3
Thaspium trifoliatum var. flavum Purple Meadow Parsnip 3
Valeriana edulis var. ciliata Hairy Valerian 3


The following Ecological Landscapes have the best opportunities to manage for Wet-mesic Prairie, 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 Wet-mesic Prairie in Ecological Landscapes with opportunities for protection, restoration, and/or management. For more information, see the Wildlife Action Plan.

Central Sand Hills

There are significant management opportunities for wet-mesic prairie in this Ecological Landscape. Opportunities and examples of this type occur at Comstock and Germania Marshes, Fountain Creek Prairie, and Muir Park State Natural Area (all in Marquette County).

Southeast Glacial Plains

This community type formerly existed in swales between drumlins, on borders of sedge meadows along lakes and streams (e.g., Bark River, Sugar River, Scuppernong Creek, Crawfish River), and in abandoned river channels. The largest and most diverse remnants are in the southern part of the Kettle Moraine region; there is an opportunity for managing wet-mesic prairie along with other wetland types, mesic prairie, and oak opening. Most grazing occurred in the past, but some remnants are still grazed; grazing should be discontinued because long-term grazing renders these sites unrestorable. Sedimentation, pollution, and herbicide drift from surrounding agricultural areas are important considerations in this Ecological Landscape that can lead to changes in composition and encourage invasive plants. There may be some large-scale management opportunities at Faville Prairie (Jefferson County) and Waterloo Wildlife Management Area (Jefferson and Dodge Counties) to manage this type with other marsh, sedge meadow and surrogate prairie grassland communities. Other opportunities to manage for this type occur at Young Prairie State Natural Area (Jefferson and Walworth Counties), White River State Wildlife Management Area and Puchyan Prairie (Green Lake County), Scuppernong and Snapper Prairies (Jefferson County), and Kettle Moraine Low Prairie (Waukesha County)

Southern Lake Michigan Coastal

Increasing population associated with metropolitan areas is causing rapidly increasing development. Most sites are small and isolated. An exception is Chiwaukee Prairie, which is one of only a very few large occurrences of wet-mesic prairie in the state. Wet-mesic prairie is the most prevalent community type at Chiwaukee Prairie, a complex that also includes wet prairie, mesic prairie, calcareous fen, southern sedge meadow, and oak openings. Coordinated management of Chiwaukee Prairie with Illinois Beach State Park should be explored. Invasive plants are a problem in this Ecological Landscape. Encroachment by woody shrubs (e.g., gray and red-osier dogwoods) is also a problem. Sedimentation and pollution from surrounding agricultural and urban areas are important considerations in this Ecological Landscape and can lead to changes in composition and encourage invasive plants, especially in the smaller isolated sites.

Southwest Savanna

This type is rare in this Ecological Landscape but a few restoration possibilities exist. There are some sites of less than an acre in size that occur along river corridors that have expansion possibilities.

Western Coulee and Ridges

This type is rare in this Ecological Landscape. Past conversion to agriculture has impacted nearly all former wet-mesic prairies. All sites are small and isolated, with the notable exception of Avoca Prairie in Iowa County. Sites should be preserved, buffered, and enlarged where they exist. Connectivity should be maintained or restored where possible. Restoration of wet-mesic prairie is also needed. There are some small, brushy remnants in the Baraboo River Valley. Additional survey work there and in some of the other river valleys might yield positive results, although the vast majority of the lowlands have been converted to agricultural uses.


Wet-mesic Prairie Photos

Wet-mesic Prairie Photo

Chiwaukee Prairie occurs on ridge and swale topography near Lake Michigan in the southeastern corner of Wisconsin.

Photo by Thomas Meyer.

Wet-mesic Prairie Photo

Wet-mesic prairie with prairie dock, compass plant, and blazing stars. Kettle Moraine State Forest - Southern Unit, Walworth County.

Photo by Christina Isenring.

Wet-mesic Prairie Photo

Photo by Thomas Meyer.

Wet-mesic Prairie Photo

Photo by Thomas Meyer.

Wet-mesic Prairie Photo

Small but floristically rich patch of wet-mesic prairie within the Kettle Moraine State Forest - South Unit. Jefferson County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

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