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

Great Lakes Barrens

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 Great Lakes Barrens in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database.

Great Lakes barrens, a globally rare community type, is a variant of the pine barrens community known in Wisconsin primarily from sandspits in the Apostle Islands. It was historically of limited extent, and occurred on sandspits and dunes along the Great Lakes shorelines. The small number of occurrences in Wisconsin makes it difficult to characterize the type with confidence. The groundlayer is composed mostly of lichens, fungi, grasses, sedges, ericaceous shrubs and sub-shrubs, and a limited number of flowering herbs. The dominant trees in the more open stands are pines, especially red pine (Pinus resinosa), which are widely scattered, and demonstrate the limb architecture that develops under open-grown conditions, as well as wind and fire deformities. Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) may also be present and jack pine (Pinus banksiana) is now dominant in a few areas that have high restoration potential. The understory consists of dense carpets of lichens, scattered thickets of common juniper (Juniperus communis), patches of early blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), and sand cherry (Prunus pumila). Other common plants include crinkled hair grass (Deschampsia flexuosa), tickle grass (Agrostis hyemalis), false-heather (Hudsonia tomentosa), sand cress (Arabidopsis lyrata), and bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi).

The extremely xeric site conditions and periodic past wildfires have maintained this community over time. Fire scars on living pines and snags from Stockton Island in the Apostles Archipelago revealed highly variable fire frequencies, ranging from multiple fires within a five-year period to the passage of decades with no evidence of fire whatsoever (E. Epstein, personal observation 1988). Associated natural communities include Great Lakes beach, Great Lakes dune, interdunal wetland, and northern dry forest.

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 Great Lakes Barrens 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
Indiscriminate Cuckoo Bumble BeeBombus insularis1
Sanderson's Bumble BeeBombus sandersoni1
Yellow Bumble BeeBombus fervidus1

Common NighthawkChordeiles minor2
Eastern Whip-poor-willAntrostomus vociferus2
Brewer's BlackbirdEuphagus cyanocephalus1

Grasshoppers and alliesScore
Blue-legged GrasshopperMelanoplus flavidus2
Huckleberry Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus fasciatus2
A Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus foedus1
Ash-brown GrasshopperTrachyrhachys kiowa1
Bruner's Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus bruneri1
Clear-winged GrasshopperCamnula pellucida1
Club-horned GrasshopperAeropedellus clavatus1
Forest LocustMelanoplus islandicus1
Rocky Mountain Sprinkled LocustChloealtis abdominalis1
Scudder's Short-winged GrasshopperMelanoplus scudderi1
Speckled Rangeland GrasshopperArphia conspersa1
Stone's LocustMelanoplus stonei1

Northern Flying SquirrelGlaucomys sabrinus2
Prairie Deer MousePeromyscus maniculatus bairdii2
Woodland Jumping MouseNapaeozapus insignis1

Blanding's TurtleEmydoidea blandingii3
Wood TurtleGlyptemys insculpta3

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
Thalictrum venulosum Veined Meadowrue 2
Vaccinium vitis-idaea Mountain Cranberry 1


The following Ecological Landscapes have the best opportunities to manage for Great Lakes Barrens, based on the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin Handbook.

Map of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin.

Ecological LandscapeOpportunity
Superior Coastal PlainMajor
Northern Lake Michigan CoastalPresent

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

Northern Lake Michigan Coastal

Protection and management opportunities away from Lake Superior are apparently extremely limited, but a few remnants have been identified in this Ecological Landscape. These sites are privately owned, and all are extremely small, with the largest known barrens remnant only a few acres in size. In contrast to the occurrences on Lake Superior, at least one of the sites on Lake Michigan supports a flora composed mostly of prairie species. Additional survey work to identify or better describe remnants should include the Green Bay Islands with sandy soils (e.g., Chambers Island), and also consider some of the sandy regions in the vicinity of the towns of Peshtigo and Marinette.

Superior Coastal Plain

The best opportunities to protect and manage this type are associated with sandscapes in the Apostle Islands. Stockton Island has the largest, least disturbed example, but there is management and/or restoration potential on several of the other islands.


Great Lakes Barrens Photos

Great Lakes Barrens Photo

Great Lakes Barrens at the S end of Julian Bay dune complex is the best-developed example of this community on the Lake Superior.

Photo by Emmet Judziewicz.

Great Lakes Barrens Photo

The Great Lakes Barrens at the S end of Julian Bay dune complex depends on periodic fires for its perpetuation.

Photo by Emmet Judziewicz.

Great Lakes Barrens Photo

Trees are mostly widely scattered, open-grown red pine. The understory of native grasses, forbs, and low shrubs lacks a prarie component.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Great Lakes Barrens Photo

Scattered open-grown red & white pines are dominant trees in this L Superior sandspit barrens. Shrubs/herbs include common juniper, false heather, blueberries, crinkled hair grass.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Great Lakes Barrens Photo

Great Lakes barrens community on Stockton Island. The rare grass Deschampsia flexuosa is common.

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