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For information on Wisconsin's natural communities, contact:
Ryan O'Connor
Natural Heritage Inventory Ecologist

Boreal Forest

State Rank: S2     Global Rank: G3?   what are these ranks?


Detailed Community Description from Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin

General natural community overview

Counties shaded blue have documented occurrences for Boreal Forest in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database.

Mature stands of this upland forest community are dominated by white spruce (Picea glauca) and balsam fir (Abies balsamea), often mixed with paper birch (Betula papyrifera), northern white-cedar (Thuja occidentalis), eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) (within its range), balsam-poplar (Populus balsamifera), and trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides). Mountain-ash (Sorbus spp.) may also be present. Common understory herbs are large-leaved aster (Eurybia macrophylla), blue-bead lily (Clintonia borealis), Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), and bunchberry (Cornus canadensis). Most Wisconsin stands are associated with the Great Lakes, especially the clay plain of Lake Superior and the eastern side of the northern Door Peninsula on Lake Michigan. The boreal forest in Wisconsin is transitional between the mixed deciduous-conifer forests to the south and the spruce-fir dominated forests of Canada, so tree species richness is often greater here than in the boreal forests farther north. Of potential interest from the perspectives of vegetation classification and restoration, eastern white pine had the highest importance value of any tree in the Lake Superior region, as recorded during the original land survey of the mid-1800s.

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 Boreal Forest 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.

Four-toed SalamanderHemidactylium scutatum2
Mink FrogLithobates septentrionalis1

Ants, wasps, and beesScore
Confusing Bumble BeeBombus perplexus1
Frigid Bumble BeeBombus frigidus1
Indiscriminate Cuckoo Bumble BeeBombus insularis1
Sanderson's Bumble BeeBombus sandersoni1

Aquatic and terrestrial snailsScore
Appalachian PillarCochlicopa morseana2
Sculpted GlyphGlyphyalinia rhoadsi1

A Predaceous Diving BeetleIlybius angustior1

Evening GrosbeakCoccothraustes vespertinus3
Black-backed WoodpeckerPicoides arcticus2
Gray JayPerisoreus canadensis2
Least FlycatcherEmpidonax minimus2
Northern GoshawkAccipiter gentilis2
Olive-sided FlycatcherContopus cooperi2
Ruby-crowned KingletRegulus calendula2
Spruce GrouseFalcipennis canadensis2
Swainson's ThrushCatharus ustulatus2
American WoodcockScolopax minor1
Boreal ChickadeePoecile hudsonicus1
Connecticut WarblerOporornis agilis1
Golden-winged WarblerVermivora chrysoptera1

Butterflies and mothsScore
Semirelict Underwing MothCatocala semirelicta3

Grasshoppers and alliesScore
Huckleberry Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus fasciatus2
Bruner's Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus bruneri1
Crackling Forest GrasshopperTrimerotropis verruculata1
Forest LocustMelanoplus islandicus1
Spotted-winged GrasshopperOrphulella pelidna1

Northern Flying SquirrelGlaucomys sabrinus3
Water ShrewSorex palustris3
Woodland Jumping MouseNapaeozapus insignis3
American MartenMartes americana2
Little Brown BatMyotis lucifugus2
Silver-haired BatLasionycteris noctivagans2
Big Brown BatEptesicus fuscus1
Northern Long-eared BatMyotis septentrionalis1

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
Adlumia fungosa Climbing Fumitory 3
Astragalus neglectus Cooper's Milkvetch 1
Botrychium lunaria Common Moonwort 2
Botrychium minganense Mingan's Moonwort 3
Botrychium spathulatum Spoon-leaf Moonwort 2
Carex capillaris Hair-like Sedge 3
Carex concinna Beautiful Sedge 3
Carex novae-angliae New England Sedge 3
Cypripedium arietinum Ram's-head Lady's-slipper 2
Cystopteris laurentiana Laurentian Bladder Fern 2
Dryopteris expansa Spreading Woodfern 3
Festuca occidentalis Western Fescue 2
Geocaulon lividum Northern Comandra 2
Geum macrophyllum var. macrophyllum Large-leaved Avens 2
Goodyera oblongifolia Giant Rattlesnake-plantain 2
Huperzia selago Fir Clubmoss 2
Iris lacustris Dwarf Lake Iris 2
Omalotheca sylvatica Woodland Cudweed 3
Petasites sagittatus Sweet Colt's-foot 1
Polystichum braunii Braun's Holly-fern 1
Ribes oxyacanthoides ssp. oxyacanthoides Canadian Gooseberry 2
Selaginella selaginoides Low Spike-moss 2
Trisetum melicoides Purple False Oats 2
Vaccinium vitis-idaea Mountain Cranberry 2


The following Ecological Landscapes have the best opportunities to manage for Boreal Forest, based on the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin Handbook.

Map of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin.

Ecological LandscapeOpportunity
Superior Coastal PlainMajor
North Central ForestImportant
Northern Lake Michigan CoastalImportant
Northwest LowlandsImportant
Northeast SandsPresent
Northern HighlandPresent

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 Boreal Forest in Ecological Landscapes with opportunities for protection, restoration, and/or management. For more information, see the Wildlife Action Plan.

North Central Forest

Boreal forest patches occur locally in cool, moist depressions at scattered locations throughout this Ecological Landscape. Cold air drainage may be a factor that contributes to the maintenance of this community in a landscape that is much more amenable to other forest types. Among the few examples are Flambeau River Pines and Boreal Forest (western Iron County), Bear Lake Hardwoods and Boreal Forest (Ashland County Forest), and scattered, very small sites on the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, such as the Charlie Otto Springs (Forest County).

Northern Lake Michigan Coastal

Occurrences of boreal forest are found along the Lake Michigan side of the northern Door Peninsula, in a thin strip well under one mile wide, paralleling the shore just inland from the open rock pavement and shrub zone along the lake. In this Ecological Landscape, the community is associated with highly localized lake effect climate that contributes to cooler temperatures, and thin soils over dolomite bedrock. The conifer component of these forests is mixed, sometimes dominated by northern white cedar, or by spruce and fir, with representation of eastern white pine. Deer browse is severe in many forested areas here. Of special conservation interest are the many rare species, and high diversity of conifer-associated wood warblers, that occur here. Though the type is very limited in extent, good examples occur at Toft Point, Marshall's Point, and Moonlight Bay Bedrock Beach (all State Natural Areas in Door County).

Northwest Lowlands

Boreal forest patches typically occur in moist depressions between ridges in this Ecological Landscape. Compositionally, they are similar to boreal forests of the Superior Coastal Plain Ecological Landscape, but lack some of the understory species that are common in the Superior Coastal Plain, as well as eastern hemlock, as this Ecological Landscape is outside of its range. The relatively low road density in these forests affords one of the best remaining opportunities for species that prefer solitude. Erickson Creek State Natural Area (Douglas County) and several of the large intact peatlands nearby (e.g., Black Lake and Empire Swamp), contain examples of second-growth northern hardwoods and/or aspen-birch forests that sometimes have good representations of balsam fir and white spruce in the understory.

Superior Coastal Plain

This Ecological Landscape represents the best opportunity to restore some areas to this community type, and to encourage species that have been reduced in abundance since the Cutover (e.g., eastern hemlock, Canada yew, northern white cedar). The clay soils require careful management to avoid damage from heavy equipment and possible "swamping" following timber harvest. Drainages containing this type are also susceptible to being dammed by beaver. A change in management focus would be needed to reintroduce and favor the conifer component. Older stands dominated by boreal conifers are scarce and usually small. Examples of this community occur on the Superior Municipal Forest (Douglas County), the northernmost portions of the Brule River State Forest (Douglas County), and Port Wing Boreal Forest State Natural Area (Bayfield County). The type may also be found in Ashland County on the Reservation of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwa (which is not open to visitation without the express permission of the tribe).


Boreal Forest Photos

Boreal Forest Photo

Flooding completely filled this oxbow on the Nemadji River with sediments a day or two before this photo was taken. The new channel is visible in the lower left corner of the image.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Boreal Forest Photo

Boreal forest dominated by white spruce and balsam fir. In WI, aspen is a frequent associate boreal forest stands. Brule River Cliffs SNA, Brule River SF.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Boreal Forest Photo

White spruce, red pine, paper birch, and balsam poplar forest, Douglas County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Boreal Forest Photo

View from the lighthouse on Devil's Island of the boreal forest on the island and scattered super-canopy white pine.

Photo by Christina Isenring.

Boreal Forest Photo

Boreal forest on Devil's Island, Ashland County.

Photo by Christina Isenring.

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