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Bracken Grassland

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 Bracken Grassland in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database.

Bracken grasslands occur in northern Wisconsin on upland sites with infertile sandy soils. These communities are dominated by bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum), Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), Kalm's brome grass (Bromus kalmii), and Canada bluegrass (Poa compressa). Other common herbs include poverty-oat grass (Danthonia spicata), Lindley's aster (Symphyotrichum ciliolatum), gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), and common strawberry (Fragaria virginiana). Some sites have variable coverages of low shrubs such as blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium and V. myrtilloides), sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina), prairie willow (Salix humilis), and hazelnuts (Corylus spp.). Non-native plants are often present on these sites and sometimes reach relatively high cover value, though not all are ecologically invasive.

The origin of this type is unclear, but apparently includes an interacting mixture of topographic and edaphic conditions, past disturbance history, and perhaps some degree of allelopathy due to the abundance of bracken fern. The community is fire-dependent, was probably maintained by relatively frequent ground fires, and on some landforms is associated with low-lying frost pockets where frosts occur during the growing season. The type shares some similarities with dry sand prairie, but because of its northerly range possesses fewer prairie species. It intergrades with pine barrens or northern dry forest, with jack pine (Pinus banksiana) as the dominant tree species. Physiognomically, this community can be composed mostly of herbs, shrubs (with patches of ericaceous shrubs being especially prominent), or occur as a complex mosaic of grassy or shrubby openings, interspersed with patches of jack pine, balsam fir (Abies balsamea), northern pin oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis), aspens (Populus spp.), and cherries (Prunus spp.).

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 Bracken Grassland 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
Confusing Bumble BeeBombus perplexus1
Yellow Bumble BeeBombus fervidus1

Northern Barrens Tiger BeetleCicindela patruela patruela3
Ghost Tiger BeetleEllipsoptera lepida2

Upland SandpiperBartramia longicauda3
Vesper SparrowPooecetes gramineus3
Common NighthawkChordeiles minor2
Grasshopper SparrowAmmodramus savannarum2
Sharp-tailed GrouseTympanuchus phasianellus2
Western MeadowlarkSturnella neglecta2
American WoodcockScolopax minor1
BobolinkDolichonyx oryzivorus1
Brewer's BlackbirdEuphagus cyanocephalus1
Long-eared OwlAsio otus1
Short-eared OwlAsio flammeus1

Butterflies and mothsScore
Chryxus ArcticOeneis chryxus2
Northern BlueLycaeides idas2
Bina Flower MothSchinia bina1

Grasshoppers and alliesScore
Clear-winged GrasshopperCamnula pellucida1
Crackling Forest GrasshopperTrimerotropis verruculata1
Forest LocustMelanoplus islandicus1
Huckleberry Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus fasciatus1
Speckled Rangeland GrasshopperArphia conspersa1

Franklin's Ground SquirrelPoliocitellus franklinii2
Prairie VoleMicrotus ochrogaster1

Blanding's TurtleEmydoidea blandingii3
Wood TurtleGlyptemys insculpta3
Plains GartersnakeThamnophis radix2
Prairie SkinkPlestiodon septentrionalis2
Butler's GartersnakeThamnophis butleri1
GophersnakePituophis catenifer1
Ornate Box TurtleTerrapene ornata1
Slender Glass LizardOphisaurus attenuatus1

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


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

Map of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin.

Ecological LandscapeOpportunity
Northeast SandsMajor
Northern HighlandImportant

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

Northeast Sands

Spread Eagle Barrens State Natural Area is the largest existing representative site, including pine barrens and bracken grasslands. It occupies a total of about 8,500 acres in Florence County. The land's surface features were formed by glaciation; rolling collapsed outwash plains are characteristic of Spread Eagle Barrens. Bracken grasslands occur in depressions where frosts limit the growth of woody vegetation, and pine barrens with scattered jack pines are common in other areas. Part of Spread Eagle Barrens is owned by WDNR, and the remainder is managed under a conservation easement with WE Energies. The site supports some area-sensitive species like northern harrier and upland sandpiper, as well as birds that key in strongly on specific habitat structural features such as chestnut-sided warbler, clay-colored sparrow, and rufous-sided towhee. Restoration and management is accomplished through a combination of limited timber harvesting and prescribed burning. Non-motorized uses, such as bird watching and blueberry picking, are available to visitors.

Northern Highland

Good examples of this unusual and poorly understood herb-dominated community occur in dry kettle depressions within pitted glacial outwash landforms that cover significant portions of this Ecological Landscape. Native herb-dominated communities are unusual on upland sites in this portion of northern Wisconsin. Only a few examples have been documented, they are all small (<100 acres), and they appear to be maintained in part by the periodic occurrence of growing season frosts that prevent or inhibit tree growth. Tree planting has been attempted and failed in these areas in the past. Maintenance of representative examples of this community type is desirable here for ecological, recreational, and aesthetic reasons. More thorough surveys for this type on appropriate landforms in northern Wisconsin, north of the ranges of most prairie plants, could prove fruitful (e.g., at the northern extremity of the Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape in northern Bayfield County).


Bracken Grassland Photos

Bracken Grassland Photo

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Bracken Grassland Photo

Bracken Grassland-Pine Barrens complex restored and managed by the use of prescribed fire and timber harvest.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Bracken Grassland Photo

Bracken Grassland, Nicolet National Forest, Oconto County.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Bracken Grassland Photo

Bracken Grassland with blueberry, sweet fern, and grasses. Johnson Lake Barrens, Vilas 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: Wednesday, June 16, 2021