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Ryan O'Connor
Natural Heritage Inventory Ecologist

Dry Prairie

State Rank: S3     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 Dry Prairie in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database.

This dry grassland community usually occurs on steep south- or west-facing slopes or at the summits of river bluffs with sandstone or dolomite bedrock near the surface. Short to medium-sized prairie grasses such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), hairy grama (Bouteloua hirsuta), and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) are the dominants in this community. Common shrubs and forbs include leadplant (Amorpha canescens), silky aster (Symphyotrichum sericeum), flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), purple prairie-clover (Dalea purpureum), cylindrical blazing-star (Liatris cylindracea), and gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis). Stands on knolls in the Kettle Moraine region of southeastern Wisconsin and on bluffs along the St. Croix River on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border occur on gravelly substrates and may warrant recognition as distinctive subtypes of dry prairie.

Although a relatively uncommon natural community, dry prairie is better represented in today's landscape than any other prairie community because it occurs on sites that are not well suited to other uses. However, dry prairie is more abundant in Wisconsin than in any other state in the in the Upper Midwest due to the our unique topography, including steep-sided bluffs in the extensive Driftless Area, the rough terrain of the interlobate Kettle Moraine region, and the north-south orientation of several major river valleys such as the Mississippi, the Chippewa, and the St. Croix. These topographic attributes provide suitable sites for the development and persistence of this prairie type.

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 Dry 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.

Ants, wasps, and beesScore
A Cuckoo BeeEpeolus ainsliei2
An Anthophorid BeeNeolarra vigilans2
American Bumble BeeBombus pensylvanicus1
Confusing Bumble BeeBombus perplexus1
Rusty-patched Bumble BeeBombus affinis1
Silphium Terminal Gall WaspAntistrophus silphii1
Yellow Bumble BeeBombus fervidus1

Aquatic and terrestrial snailsScore
Smooth CoilHelicodiscus singleyanus3
Trumpet ValloniaVallonia parvula3
Wing SnaggletoothGastrocopta procera3

A Leaf BeetlePachybrachis peccans3
A Leaf BeetleGlyptina brunnea3
A Case-bearing Leaf BeetleTriachus vacuus2
A Colaspis Leaf BeetleColaspis suggona2
A Leaf BeetlePachybrachis atomarius2
A Leaf BeetleSaxinis omogera2
A Leaf BeetleBassareus lituratus2
A Leaf BeetleBrachypnoea convexa2
A Leaf BeetlePachybrachis luridus1
A Leaf BeetleGlyptina leptosoma1
A Pear-shaped WeevilTrichapion perforicolle1
A Pear-shaped WeevilCoelocephalapion decoloratum1
A Pear-shaped WeevilSayapion segnipes1

Grasshopper SparrowAmmodramus savannarum3
Upland SandpiperBartramia longicauda3
Vesper SparrowPooecetes gramineus3
Bell's VireoVireo bellii2
Brewer's BlackbirdEuphagus cyanocephalus2
Common NighthawkChordeiles minor2
Eastern MeadowlarkSturnella magna2
Greater Prairie-ChickenTympanuchus cupido2
Lark SparrowChondestes grammacus2
Loggerhead ShrikeLanius ludovicianus2
Long-eared OwlAsio otus2
Northern BobwhiteColinus virginianus2
Sharp-tailed GrouseTympanuchus phasianellus2
Short-eared OwlAsio flammeus2
Western MeadowlarkSturnella neglecta2
DickcisselSpiza americana1

Butterflies and mothsScore
A Noctuid MothDichagyris reliqua3
Abbreviated Underwing MothCatocala abbreviatella3
Byssus SkipperProblema byssus3
Cross Line SkipperPolites origenes3
Leadplant Flower MothSchinia lucens3
Ottoe SkipperHesperia ottoe3
Dusted SkipperAtrytonopsis hianna2
Gorgone Checker SpotChlosyne gorgone2
Whitney's Underwing MothCatocala whitneyi2
Columbine Dusky WingErynnis lucilius1
Karner BlueLycaeides melissa samuelis1
Mottled Dusky WingErynnis martialis1
Phlox MothSchinia indiana1
Regal FritillarySpeyeria idalia1

Grasshoppers and alliesScore
Green-streak GrasshopperHesperotettix viridis3
Handsome GrasshopperSyrbula admirabilis3
Obscure GrasshopperOpeia obscura3
Scudder's Short-winged GrasshopperMelanoplus scudderi3
Showy GrasshopperHesperotettix speciosus3
Spotted-winged GrasshopperOrphulella pelidna3
Velvet-striped GrasshopperEritettix simplex3
Gladston's Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus gladstoni2
Mermiria GrasshopperMermiria bivittata2
Plains Yellow-winged GrasshopperArphia simplex2
Short-winged GrasshopperDichromorpha viridis2
Speckled Rangeland GrasshopperArphia conspersa2
Blue-legged GrasshopperMelanoplus flavidus1
Club-horned GrasshopperAeropedellus clavatus1
Grizzly Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus punctulatus1
Stone's LocustMelanoplus stonei1

Leafhoppers and true bugsScore
A LeafhopperMemnonia panzeri3
A LeafhopperDriotura robusta3
A LeafhopperKansendria kansiensis3
A LeafhopperLaevicephalus vannus3
A LeafhopperAttenuipyga vanduzeei3
A LeafhopperParaphlepsius altus3
A LeafhopperParaphlepsius maculosus3
A PlanthopperRhynchomitra microrhina3
An Issid PlanthopperFitchiella robertsonii3
An Issid PlanthopperBruchomorpha extensa3
Prairie LeafhopperPolyamia dilata3
Red-tailed Prairie LeafhopperAflexia rubranura3
A LeafhopperCuerna sayi2
A LeafhopperParaphlepsius nebulosus2
A LeafhopperPrairiana cinerea2
A LeafhopperPrairiana kansana2
A PlanthopperMyndus ovatus2
Yellow Loosestrife LeafhopperErythroneura carbonata2
A LeafhopperPrairiana angustens1
A Seed BugSlaterobius quadristriata1
Piglet BugAphelonema simplex1

Prairie Deer MousePeromyscus maniculatus bairdii2
Prairie VoleMicrotus ochrogaster2
Big Brown BatEptesicus fuscus1
Franklin's Ground SquirrelPoliocitellus franklinii1

Blanding's TurtleEmydoidea blandingii3
GophersnakePituophis catenifer3
Lined SnakeTropidoclonion lineatum3
North American RacerColuber constrictor3
Ornate Box TurtleTerrapene ornata3
Plains GartersnakeThamnophis radix3
Prairie Ring-necked SnakeDiadophis punctatus arnyi3
Prairie SkinkPlestiodon septentrionalis3
Six-lined RacerunnerAspidoscelis sexlineata3
Slender Glass LizardOphisaurus attenuatus3
Timber RattlesnakeCrotalus horridus3
Western WormsnakeCarphophis vermis3
Wood TurtleGlyptemys insculpta3
Eastern MassasaugaSistrurus catenatus2
Gray RatsnakePantherophis spiloides2
Butler's GartersnakeThamnophis butleri1

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 gattingeri Roundstem Foxglove 3
Agalinis skinneriana Pale False Foxglove 3
Anemone caroliniana Carolina Anemone 3
Anemone multifida var. multifida Cut-leaved Anemone 3
Anticlea elegans ssp. glaucus White Camas 2
Aristida dichotoma Shinners' Three-awned Grass 3
Arnoglossum plantagineum Prairie Indian-plantain 3
Artemisia dracunculus Dragon Wormwood 3
Artemisia frigida Prairie Sagebrush 3
Asclepias lanuginosa Woolly Milkweed 3
Astragalus crassicarpus Ground-plum 3
Besseya bullii Kitten Tails 2
Boechera missouriensis Missouri Rock-cress 2
Botrychium campestre Prairie Dunewort 2
Callirhoe triangulata Clustered Poppy-mallow 1
Carex torreyi Torrey's Sedge 3
Cirsium hillii Hill's Thistle 3
Commelina erecta var. deamiana Narrow-leaved Dayflower 3
Crotalaria sagittalis Arrow-headed Rattle-box 3
Dalea villosa var. villosa Silky Prairie-clover 3
Desmodium perplexum Perplexed Tick-trefoil 1
Dichanthelium wilcoxianum Wilcox's Panic Grass 3
Echinacea pallida Pale Purple Coneflower 3
Glycyrrhiza lepidota Wild Licorice 2
Houstonia caerulea Azure Bluets 3
Hypericum prolificum Shrubby St. John's-wort 2
Lechea mucronata Hairy Pinweed 3
Lespedeza leptostachya Prairie Bush Clover 3
Lespedeza violacea Violet Bush Clover 2
Lespedeza virginica Slender Bush Clover 2
Lesquerella ludoviciana Silver Bladderpod 3
Liatris punctata var. nebraskana Dotted Blazing Star 3
Melica nitens Three-flowered Melic Grass 1
Minuartia dawsonensis Rock Stitchwort 2
Nothocalais cuspidata Prairie False-dandelion 3
Oenothera serrulata Yellow Evening Primrose 3
Orobanche fasciculata Clustered Broomrape 2
Packera plattensis Prairie Ragwort 3
Pediomelum argophyllum Silvery Scurf Pea 3
Pediomelum esculentum Prairie Turnip 3
Penstemon hirsutus Hairy Beardtongue 3
Penstemon pallidus Pale Beardtongue 3
Polygala incarnata Pink Milkwort 1
Polytaenia nuttallii Prairie Parsley 3
Prenanthes aspera Rough Rattlesnake-root 3
Primula fassettii Jeweled Shooting Star 3
Ptelea trifoliata ssp. trifoliata var. trifoliata Wafer-ash 2
Rhamnus lanceolata var. glabrata Lanced-leaved Buckthorn 3
Ruellia humilis Hairy Wild Petunia 3
Scutellaria parvula var. parvula Small Skullcap 3
Sisyrinchium albidum White Blue-eyed-grass 3
Spiranthes magnicamporum Great Plains Lady's-tresses 3
Spiranthes ovalis var. erostellata October Lady's-tresses 2
Strophostyles leiosperma Small-flowered Woolly Bean 3
Valeriana edulis var. ciliata Hairy Valerian 2
Verbena simplex Narrow-leaved Vervain 2


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

Map of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin.

Ecological LandscapeOpportunity
Southeast Glacial PlainsMajor
Southwest SavannaMajor
Western Coulee and RidgesMajor
Central Sand HillsImportant
Central Sand PlainsImportant
Western PrairieImportant

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

Central Sand Hills

This type is not well represented in this Ecological Landscape. Sites should be preserved where they exist. The best example is found at Hawk Hill (Dane County). Other dry prairies here should be classified as "Sand Prairie".

Central Sand Plains

This type is not well represented in the Ecological Landscape and is associated with steep slopes on sandstone ridges. Sites should be preserved where they exist. Examples are found at Brooks Bluff (Adams County), Round Bluff, Townline Bluff, and Twin Teton Bluffs (all in Juneau County).

Southeast Glacial Plains

The dry prairie type is of limited extent in this Ecological Landscape, but locally common in the South Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest on steep slopes of south or west-facing morainal ridges. The substrate consists of glacially deposited sands and gravels. Most prairies here are small and overgrown, but some sites are now being managed with prescribed fire, brushing, and herbicides. Many sites were historically small and restricted due to topographic position, where they intergraded with other prairie types and oak openings. Larger sites should be preserved where they exist. Opportunities for restoration exist, and these may be less labor-intensive than for tallgrass types. Additional development on and around restorable sites should be limited, especially where that would conflict with the need to use prescribed fire or other active management tools. More information should be gathered to document differences of the prairies on glacial moraine from those on Driftless Area bluffs. Sites should also be monitored to determine whether management is maintaining native diversity.

Southwest Savanna

The dry prairie type is limited in extent in this Ecological Landscape and restricted mostly to steep slopes on bluffs (e.g., bluff prairies and goat prairies). Large unplowed pastures are present in some parts of this Ecological Landscape that could be restored to native grasslands. Urban expansion is occurring in some locations and can impact prairie remnants and limit the opportunity to manage with prescribed fire. Examples are found at Thomson Prairie and Barneveld Prairie Preserves (Iowa County), and Yellowstone Savanna and Hardscrabble Prairie State Natural Areas (Lafayette County).

Western Coulee and Ridges

This Ecological Landscape represents the best opportunity in the state (and perhaps in the upper Midwest) for conservation of this community. The type is found on steep slopes on bluffs (and have often been called "bluff prairies", "goat prairies", or "dry lime prairies"). Patch sizes are typically small, but there are many extant occurrences. Examples of this type are found at Battle Bluff Prairie (Vernon County), Rush Creek (Crawford County), Trenton Bluff Prairie (Pierce County), Gasner Hollow Prairie (Grant County), and Morgan Coulee Prairie (Pierce County) State Natural Areas.

Western Prairie

Dry prairie is of limited extent in isthe Ecological Landscape, occurring mostly on steep west-facing slopes on bluffs of the St. Croix River and some of its tributaries, and in a few sandy-soiled areas elsewhere. Patch sizes are typically small with a few existing and potential sites. Past grazing has led to degradation of many sites. Urban expansion is occurring throughout the Ecological Landscape and existing sites should be preserved. Examples of dry prairie occur at Apple River Canyon State Natural Area and at Willow River State Park (St. Croix County), and as small patches on bluffs with south or west aspects in the Kinnickinnic River Valley (Pierce County).


Dry Prairie Photos

Dry Prairie Photo

Extensive dry prairies on south and west-facing bluffs above the Mississippi River. These prairies feature thin soils with bedrock at or near the surface.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Dry Prairie Photo

Series of dry bluff prairies on steep southwest exposures above the Mississippi River. Rush Creek SNA, Crawford County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Dry Prairie Photo

Photo by Christina Isenring.

Dry Prairie Photo

Photo by Thomas Meyer.

Dry Prairie Photo

Prescribed burn conducted to maintain a dry prairie on a steep bluff in SW WI. The crew is establishing a refugium (fire-free area) to protect rare, fire-sensitive species.

Photo by Armund Bartz.

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