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Ryan O'Connor
Natural Heritage Inventory Ecologist

Moist Cliff

State Rank: S4     Global Rank: GNR   what are these ranks?


Detailed Community Description from Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin

General natural community overview

Counties shaded blue have documented occurrences for Moist Cliff in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database.

Moist cliffs occur on shaded (by trees or the cliff itself because of aspect), moist to seeping, mossy, vertical exposures of various rock types, usually sandstone and dolomite. A greater proportion of sandstone cliff sites tend to be moist, compared to limestone cliff sites, due to the potential for capillary action in sandstone to transport water essential for plant survival. Igneous (granite, basalt) and metamorphic (quartzite) rocks tend to be dry due to their impermeability, but in some situations, water moving through the ground above the bedrock cannot go through the rock and moves laterally until it finds a path to take it downward. There it will exit, often over the face of a cliff. Moist cliffs may be shaded due to a cool (e.g., north-facing) aspect, or receive shading from associated tree canopy above or below the cliff. Relative to dry cliffs, they are often found on micro-sites of very restricted spatial extent.

Common vascular plant species growing on these cliffs include columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), the fragile ferns (Cystopteris bulbifera and C. fragilis), wood ferns (Dryopteris spp.), rattlesnake-root (Prenanthes alba), and wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis). The rare flora of these cliffs varies markedly in different parts of the state--Driftless Area cliffs might have northern monkshood (Aconitum noveboracense), those on Lake Superior, butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris), and those in Door County, green spleenwort (Asplenium viride). Lichens, mosses, and ferns are important components of cliff habitats. Present knowledge of the distribution and status of many of these plant species, along with many invertebrate species, is limited.

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 Moist Cliff 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 scutatum1

Aquatic and terrestrial snailsScore
Appalachian PillarCochlicopa morseana3
Boreal TopZoogenetes harpa3
Black StriateStriatura ferrea2
Brilliant GranuleGuppya sterkii2
Broad-banded ForestsnailAllogona profunda2
Cherrystone DropHendersonia occulta2
Dentate SupercoilParavitrea multidentata2
Hubricht's VertigoVertigo hubrichti2
Sculpted GlyphGlyphyalinia rhoadsi2
Wing SnaggletoothGastrocopta procera2
Bright GlyphGlyphyalinia wheatleyi1
Ribbed StriateStriatura exigua1

Big Brown BatEptesicus fuscus2
Tricolored BatPerimyotis subflavus1

Gray RatsnakePantherophis spiloides1

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
Aconitum noveboracense Northern Monkshood 3
Adlumia fungosa Climbing Fumitory 1
Adoxa moschatellina Muskroot 3
Asplenium trichomanes Maidenhair Spleenwort 3
Asplenium trichomanes-ramosum Green Spleenwort 3
Boechera dentata Short's Rock-cress 3
Cystopteris laurentiana Laurentian Bladder Fern 3
Draba arabisans Rock Whitlow-grass 3
Gymnocarpium jessoense ssp. parvulum Northern Oak Fern 3
Gymnocarpium robertianum Limestone Oak Fern 3
Huperzia appressa Mountain Fir Moss 2
Huperzia porophila Rock Clubmoss 3
Huperzia selago Fir Clubmoss 3
Pinguicula vulgaris Common Butterwort 3
Polystichum braunii Braun's Holly-fern 1
Primula fassettii Jeweled Shooting Star 2
Primula mistassinica Bird's-eye Primrose 3
Pseudognaphalium saxicola Cliff Cudweed 3
Rhamnus lanceolata var. glabrata Lanced-leaved Buckthorn 1
Rhododendron lapponicum Lapland Azalea 2
Sullivantia sullivantii Sullivant's Cool-wort 3
Trisetum spicatum Spike Trisetum 3
Woodsia oregana ssp. cathcartiana Oregon Woodsia 3


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

Central Lake Michigan Coastal

Land use plans covering this area as of 2001 largely excluded the Niagara Escarpment as a unique natural feature. Overlapping and sometimes conflicting plans among jurisdictions can create a barrier to effective cooperation on conservation issues. Neshoto Caves and Dells (Manitowoc County), along with Escarpment Woods (Brown County), are just two of the moist cliff sites in this Ecological Landscape. An ongoing project to inventory the Niagara Escarpment may reveal additional sites worthy of protection

Central Sand Hills

Increased scattered residential development is becoming a factor here, but is not likely to affect this community. Pine Hollow State Natural Area (Sauk County) and Petra's Ravine feature shaded moist cliffs supporting plants such as sword moss and Sullivan's coolwort.

Central Sand Plains

Upper Dells Cliffs (Columbia County) supports one of only a few globally known populations of cliff cudweed. Blackhawk Island and Castle Rock (Juneau County) are two other well-known and protected examples of moist cliff in this Ecological Landscape

Forest Transition

Dalles of the St. Croix River State Natural Area (Polk County) primarily features dry cliff along an exposed basalt formation, but there is also some moist cliff in this protected area. Dells of the Eau Claire River (Marathon County) is a county-owned State Natural Area where spray from water tumbling through a rhyolitic schist gorge sustains a moist cliff community.

North Central Forest

Cliffs are not major features of this Ecological Landscape, but some exceptional examples occur in the Penokee Range of Iron and Ashland counties, e.g., along the Marengo and Brunsweiler Rivers. Other important moist cliff exposures occur along the Brule River within the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forests (Florence County). Additional examples occur in the Flambeau Pines/Turtle River Hemlocks (Vilas County).

Northeast Sands

Club Moss Woods (Marinette County) is one site in this Ecological Landscape that may be worthy of conservation action

Northern Lake Michigan Coastal

Red Banks Glades (Brown County) contains some of this type, and is in need of prompt conservation attention due to a combination of threats. Washington Island, Plum Island and Rock Island (all Door County) contain examples of this type that enjoy varying degrees of protection.

Southeast Glacial Plains

Mitchell's Glen (Fond du Lac County) is a moist cliff site that received a high score for ecological significance at a workshop held to identify conservation priorities in the Upper Fox Basin.

Southwest Savanna

Most of the known sites are in private ownership.

Superior Coastal Plain

Sandstone cliffs on Lake Superior islands (Ashland County) are protected to a high degree within Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Otter Island, Devils Island, and Stockton Island all contain ecologically important series of moist cliff habitat. The mainland unit of the National Lakeshore (Bayfield County) also contains excellent, protected exposures of moist cliff.

Western Coulee and Ridges

Development of bluff lands in this Ecological Landscape has been increasing, spurred by an increase in the region's popularity for second homes and by exurban development from the LaCrosse and Madison metropolitan areas. Lodde's Mill Bluff and Parfrey's Glen State Natural Areas (Sauk County), Wyalusing State Park (Grant County), and Wildcat Mountain State Park (Vernon County) contain excellent examples of this community. Many other occurrences exist on public and private lands in this Ecological Landscape.

Western Prairie

Kinnickinnic River Gorge and Delta (Pierce County) features a high, dripping sandstone shelf with a population of bulblet ferns, among many other characteristic cliff plants. The steep, high, narrow sandstone formation of the Apple River Canyon State Natural Area (St. Croix County) supports another protected example of this community.


Moist Cliff Photos

Moist Cliff Photo

Moist, partially shaded sandstone cliff along Lake Superior. Squaw Bay Cliffs, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Photo by Emmet Judziewicz.

Moist Cliff Photo

Moist shaded cliff of silurian dolomite, along the Oakfield Ledge portion of the Niagara Escarpment, Fond du Lac County.

Photo by Emmet Judziewicz.

Moist Cliff Photo

Moist Cliff bordering Skillet Creek, Sauk County.

Photo by Drew Feldkirchner.

Moist Cliff Photo

Gorge cut by the Bad River through Precambrian basalts. Copper Falls State Park, Ashland County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Moist Cliff Photo

Moist cliff draped in mosses and ferns on either side of a small stream in Adams Co.

Photo by Ryan O'Connor.

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