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Ryan O'Connor
Natural Heritage Inventory Ecologist

Mesic Prairie

State Rank: S1     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 Mesic Prairie in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database.

Also called tallgrass prairie, mesic prairie was common historically but is extremely rare today. This grassland community occurs on rich, moist, well-drained sites, usually on level or gently rolling glacial topography. The dominant plant is big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii). The grasses little bluestem (Andropogon scoparius), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), needle grass (Hesperostipa spartea), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), and switch grass (Panicum virgatum) are also frequent. The forb layer is diverse in the number, size, and physiognomy of the species. Common taxa include the prairie docks (Silphium spp.), leadplant (Amorpha canescens), heath and smooth asters (Symphyotrichum ericoides and S. laeve), prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata), prairie sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus), rattlesnake-master (Eryngium yuccifolium), flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa), prairie coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), and spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis).

At the time of European settlement it is estimated that there was over 800,000 acres of mesic prairie in southern Wisconsin. Today less than 100 acres of intact tallgrass prairie still exists, and is associated with other prairie communities, various wetland types, and oak openings. Mesic prairies are rare today because areas they once occupied have deep, rich soils built by the extensive root systems of the prairie plants, and have been converted to some of the most productive croplands in the world.

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 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 palustris2

Ants, wasps, and beesScore
Silphium Terminal Gall WaspAntistrophus silphii3
American Bumble BeeBombus pensylvanicus2
Yellow Bumble BeeBombus fervidus2
Confusing Bumble BeeBombus perplexus1
Rusty-patched Bumble BeeBombus affinis1

Aquatic and terrestrial snailsScore
Smooth CoilHelicodiscus singleyanus2
Trumpet ValloniaVallonia parvula1

A Leaf BeetlePachybrachis atomarius2
A Pear-shaped WeevilCoelocephalapion decoloratum2
A Colaspis Leaf BeetleColaspis suggona1
A Pear-shaped WeevilFallapion bischoffi1
A Pear-shaped WeevilTrichapion perforicolle1

BobolinkDolichonyx oryzivorus3
DickcisselSpiza americana3
Eastern MeadowlarkSturnella magna3
Greater Prairie-ChickenTympanuchus cupido3
Henslow's SparrowAmmodramus henslowii3
Short-eared OwlAsio flammeus3
Brewer's BlackbirdEuphagus cyanocephalus2
Common NighthawkChordeiles minor2
Long-eared OwlAsio otus2
Northern BobwhiteColinus virginianus2
Upland SandpiperBartramia longicauda2
Bell's VireoVireo bellii1
Grasshopper SparrowAmmodramus savannarum1
Loggerhead ShrikeLanius ludovicianus1
Sharp-tailed GrouseTympanuchus phasianellus1
Western MeadowlarkSturnella neglecta1
Yellow-breasted ChatIcteria virens1

Butterflies and mothsScore
Liatris Borer MothPapaipema beeriana3
Regal FritillarySpeyeria idalia3
Silphium Borer MothPapaipema silphii2
A Noctuid MothDichagyris reliqua1
Abbreviated Underwing MothCatocala abbreviatella1
Byssus SkipperProblema byssus1
Columbine Dusky WingErynnis lucilius1
Cross Line SkipperPolites origenes1
Gorgone Checker SpotChlosyne gorgone1
Leadplant Flower MothSchinia lucens1
Ottoe SkipperHesperia ottoe1
Poweshiek SkipperlingOarisma poweshiek1

Prairie CrayfishProcambarus gracilis2

Grasshoppers and alliesScore
Short-winged GrasshopperDichromorpha viridis2
Delicate Meadow KatydidOrchelimum delicatum1
Green-streak GrasshopperHesperotettix viridis1
Grizzly Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus punctulatus1
Handsome GrasshopperSyrbula admirabilis1
Mermiria GrasshopperMermiria bivittata1
Obscure GrasshopperOpeia obscura1
Plains Yellow-winged GrasshopperArphia simplex1
Scudder's Short-winged GrasshopperMelanoplus scudderi1
Showy GrasshopperHesperotettix speciosus1
Speckled Rangeland GrasshopperArphia conspersa1
Spotted-winged GrasshopperOrphulella pelidna1
Stone's LocustMelanoplus stonei1
Velvet-striped GrasshopperEritettix simplex1

Leafhoppers and true bugsScore
A LeafhopperParaphlepsius nebulosus3
A PlanthopperMyndus ovatus3
Piglet BugAphelonema simplex3
Red-tailed Prairie LeafhopperAflexia rubranura3
A LeafhopperMemnonia panzeri2
A LeafhopperParaphlepsius altus2
A LeafhopperParaphlepsius maculosus2
A LeafhopperPrairiana kansana2
An Issid PlanthopperFitchiella robertsonii2
An Issid PlanthopperBruchomorpha extensa2
Prairie LeafhopperPolyamia dilata2
Yellow Loosestrife LeafhopperErythroneura carbonata2
A LeafhopperDriotura robusta1
A LeafhopperCuerna sayi1
A LeafhopperKansendria kansiensis1
A LeafhopperLaevicephalus vannus1
A LeafhopperDestria crocea1
A LeafhopperAttenuipyga vanduzeei1
A LeafhopperPrairiana angustens1
A LeafhopperPrairiana cinerea1
A LeafhopperFlexamia prairiana1
A Seed BugSlaterobius quadristriata1

Little Brown BatMyotis lucifugus3
Franklin's Ground SquirrelPoliocitellus franklinii2
Big Brown BatEptesicus fuscus1
Eastern PipistrellePerimyotis subflavus1
Prairie Deer MousePeromyscus maniculatus bairdii1
Prairie VoleMicrotus ochrogaster1

Butler's GartersnakeThamnophis butleri3
Eastern MassasaugaSistrurus catenatus3
Plains GartersnakeThamnophis radix3
Blanding's TurtleEmydoidea blandingii2
GophersnakePituophis catenifer2
Gray RatsnakePantherophis spiloides2
Ornate Box TurtleTerrapene ornata2
Timber RattlesnakeCrotalus horridus2
Western RibbonsnakeThamnophis proximus2
Wood TurtleGlyptemys insculpta2
Prairie SkinkPlestiodon 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
Agalinis skinneriana Pale False Foxglove 1
Arnoglossum reniforme Great Indian-plantain 2
Asclepias hirtella Green Milkweed 2
Asclepias sullivantii Prairie Milkweed 2
Camassia scilloides Wild Hyacinth 3
Cuscuta coryli Hazel Dodder 1
Cuscuta glomerata Rope Dodder 2
Cypripedium candidum White Lady's-slipper 2
Echinacea pallida Pale Purple Coneflower 2
Eleocharis compressa var. compressa Flat-stemmed Spike-rush 2
Fimbristylis puberula Chestnut Sedge 3
Hypericum mutilum Slender St. John's-wort 2
Hypericum sphaerocarpum Round-fruited St. John's Wort 2
Juncus vaseyi Vasey's Rush 2
Lespedeza leptostachya Prairie Bush Clover 2
Phlox glaberrima ssp. interior Smooth Phlox 3
Platanthera flava var. herbiola Pale Green Orchid 2
Polygala incarnata Pink Milkwort 3
Polytaenia nuttallii Prairie Parsley 2
Scleria triglomerata Whip Nutrush 1
Sisyrinchium angustifolium Pointed Blue-eyed-grass 2
Spiranthes magnicamporum Great Plains Lady's-tresses 2
Thalictrum revolutum Waxleaf Meadowrue 2
Thaspium trifoliatum var. flavum Purple Meadow Parsnip 2
Valeriana edulis var. ciliata Hairy Valerian 3


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

Southeast Glacial Plains

Relatively few remnants exist (e.g., Westport Drumlins on the north side of knolls (Dane County), Arlington Prairie (Columbia County), Empire Prairie, White River Marsh Wildlife Area (Green Lake County), and Sugar River Trail Prairie (Green County)). Most remnants are small and isolated. Prairie inventories are needed for sites near Madison in the southwest portion of the Ecological Landscape and around the southern portion of the Kettle Moraine. A few additional remnants occur in the Lake Winnebago area, in railroad rights-of-way, but structure is often altered and species diversity is diminished. Several very small occurrences have been documented in railroad rights-of-way in and around Horicon Marsh. Additional inventory may be needed in the northern part of the Ecological Landscape (Fond du Lac and Winnebago Counties). Some sites are impacted by herbicides from both ground and aerial applications.

Southern Lake Michigan Coastal

Remaining sites should be preserved where they exist (e.g., remnants at Bong Recreation Area, and limited parts of Chiwaukee Prairie Preserve in Kenosha County). Other examples are found at Kansasville Railroad Prairie and Sturtevant Mesic Prairie (Racine County) and Benedict Prairie (Kenosha County). These occurrences are all small and most occur within rights-of-way, where they are highly vulnerable to inadvertent damage or destruction.

Southwest Savanna

Few occurrences exist in this Ecological Landscape today, and most of them are small and isolated. There are, however, some good restoration opportunities, or opportunities to manage remnants within large acreages of surrogate prairie grassland within generally open landscapes. Examples include Ipswich Prairie State Natural Area (Grant and Lafayette counties), the Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area (Iowa County), the Highway 39 Grasslands (Green County), Belmont Prairie (Lafayette County), and Stony Creek Prairie (Iowa County).

Western Coulee and Ridges

All sites are small and isolated. Past conversion to agriculture has impacted virtually all former mesic prairie in this Ecological Landscape. A few small, degraded examples of this type still exist. There is some potential that additional inventory efforts could yield undiscovered remnants, but none of these would be large. Restoration opportunities should focus on areas where there are extensive surrogate prairie grasslands, other prairie or savanna remnants, or areas where open wetlands are common.

Western Prairie

Historically, this Ecological Landscape was a major area for tallgrass prairie communities, including mesic prairie on the uplands. This is the only landscape in Wisconsin where prairie potholes were characteristic landscape features. Very few remnants remain. In most areas, the land was plowed right down to the edge of the potholes. The few existing remnants, all of which are small should be preserved and buffered with compatible community types such as surrogate prairie grassland. Potholes should also be incorporated into these complexes. Large-scale constructionrestoration of sites is needed. Grassland sites in this landscape should be surveyed and assessed to identify unplowed areas of former prairie with high restoration potential. Examples of mesic prairie include Roberts Railroad Prairie and the Hammond Cemetery Prairie (both in St. Croix County). The best restoration opportunities are probably associated with the state and federal waterfowl production areas, where there is good potential to manage complexes made up of ponds, lakes, wetlands, and surrogate grasslands.


Mesic Prairie Photos

Mesic Prairie Photo

Good examples of mesic prairie vegetation are now virtually non-existent. Extant remnants are small, isolated, and vulnerable to disturbance and degradation.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Mesic Prairie Photo

Only small fragments of mesic tallgrass prairie persist today. Most of them are in transportation rights-of-way where they are highly vulnerable.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Mesic Prairie Photo

Photo by Thomas Meyer.

Mesic Prairie Photo

Kessler Railroad Prairie State Natural Area, Rock County.

Photo by Thomas Meyer.

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: Wednesday, June 16, 2021