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

Surrogate Grasslands


General natural community overview

Of Wisconsin's 2.1 million acres that were native prairie when Europeans arrived 150 years ago, less than 10,000 acres (<0.5% of the original acreage) of varying quality native prairie remains today. The midcontinental grassland biome has been greatly reduced and degraded throughout its range, generally from farming and grazing and conversion to woody vegetation with the cessation of fires, but also from urban and suburban development. Tallgrass prairies and related oak savannas are now the most diminished and threatened plant communities in the Midwest and among the most altered in the world. As a result, an estimated 15-20% of the state's original grassland flora is now considered rare. Grassland mammals and birds have fared somewhat better, using surrogate grasslands such as hayfields and pastures for their survival needs. However, with conversion from pastures and hayfields to more row crop agriculture, some grassland birds and mammals have also been dramatically impacted over the last 30 years. For example, grassland birds as a group are the fastest declining bird group in the state.

Surrogate grasslands now represent the vast majority of grassland habitat in the state and are similar in structure to the former prairies that occurred in Wisconsin. Surrogate grasslands include agricultural habitats such as hayfields, small grains (oats, wheat, and barley), row crops (corn, soybeans, and potatoes), fallow fields, old fields, pastures, and set-aside fields (e.g., CRP) planted to non-native cool-season grasses (such as smooth brome (Bromus inermis), Timothy (Phleum pratense), redtop (Agrostis gigantea), orchard-grass (Dactylis glomerata), bluegrass (Poa pratensis and P. compressa), and quack-grass (Elymus repens)) or native warm-season grasses (such as big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), switch grass (Panicum virgatum), and side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)). Examples of other surrogate prairie grasslands include young conifer plantations, orchards, parks, golf courses, airports, roadsides, cut-over or burned-over forests, and mossed bogs (bogs from which Sphagnum moss has been removed for commercial purposes). Surrogate grasslands also include other idle grasslands, such as those on public or private lands managed for wildlife. Usually, idle grasslands are composed of non-native grasses and forbs, but they also can be plantings of one or several native prairie species, but typically fall far short of the rich species diversity of the original prairie.

Surrogate grasslands occur in every ecological landscape in Wisconsin; however, the highest concentrations of surrogate grasslands are in the Western Prairie, Western Coulee and Ridges, Southwest Savanna, Central Sand Plains, Northwest Sands, and Southeast Glacial Plains Ecological Landscapes. It is estimated that roughly 3 million acres of agricultural land currently provide surrogate grassland habitat.

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 Surrogate Grasslands 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.

Blanchard's Cricket FrogAcris blanchardi1

Ants, wasps, and beesScore
American Bumble BeeBombus pensylvanicus1
Confusing Bumble BeeBombus perplexus1
Rusty-patched Bumble BeeBombus affinis1
Yellow Bumble BeeBombus fervidus1

Aquatic and terrestrial snailsScore
Transparent Vitrine SnailVitrina angelicae1

A Colaspis Leaf BeetleColaspis suggona1
A Leaf BeetleAltica litigata1
A Pear-shaped WeevilFallapion bischoffi1
A Pear-shaped WeevilCoelocephalapion decoloratum1
Ghost Tiger BeetleEllipsoptera lepida1

BobolinkDolichonyx oryzivorus3
Brewer's BlackbirdEuphagus cyanocephalus3
DickcisselSpiza americana3
Eastern MeadowlarkSturnella magna3
Grasshopper SparrowAmmodramus savannarum3
Greater Prairie-ChickenTympanuchus cupido3
Henslow's SparrowAmmodramus henslowii3
Le Conte's SparrowAmmodramus leconteii3
Loggerhead ShrikeLanius ludovicianus3
Northern BobwhiteColinus virginianus3
Short-eared OwlAsio flammeus3
Upland SandpiperBartramia longicauda3
Western MeadowlarkSturnella neglecta3
American WoodcockScolopax minor2
Bell's VireoVireo bellii2
Common NighthawkChordeiles minor2
Purple MartinProgne subis2
Sharp-tailed GrouseTympanuchus phasianellus2
Yellow-breasted ChatIcteria virens2
American BitternBotaurus lentiginosus1
Long-eared OwlAsio otus1
Red-headed WoodpeckerMelanerpes erythrocephalus1
Vesper SparrowPooecetes gramineus1

Butterflies and mothsScore
Regal FritillarySpeyeria idalia2
Bina Flower MothSchinia bina1
Chryxus ArcticOeneis chryxus1
Cross Line SkipperPolites origenes1

Grasshoppers and alliesScore
Clear-winged GrasshopperCamnula pellucida1
Club-horned GrasshopperAeropedellus clavatus1
Crackling Forest GrasshopperTrimerotropis verruculata1
Delicate Meadow KatydidOrchelimum delicatum1
Gladston's Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus gladstoni1
Grizzly Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus punctulatus1
Plains Yellow-winged GrasshopperArphia simplex1
Short-winged GrasshopperDichromorpha viridis1
Speckled Rangeland GrasshopperArphia conspersa1
Spotted-winged GrasshopperOrphulella pelidna1

Leafhoppers and true bugsScore
A LeafhopperCuerna sayi1
A LeafhopperDestria crocea1
A LeafhopperParaphlepsius nebulosus1

Big Brown BatEptesicus fuscus2
Eastern PipistrellePerimyotis subflavus2
Franklin's Ground SquirrelPoliocitellus franklinii2
Prairie Deer MousePeromyscus maniculatus bairdii2
Prairie VoleMicrotus ochrogaster1

Eastern MassasaugaSistrurus catenatus3
Lined SnakeTropidoclonion lineatum3
Plains GartersnakeThamnophis radix3
Prairie SkinkPlestiodon septentrionalis3
Blanding's TurtleEmydoidea blandingii2
Butler's GartersnakeThamnophis butleri2
GophersnakePituophis catenifer2
Gray RatsnakePantherophis spiloides2
North American RacerColuber constrictor2
Ornate Box TurtleTerrapene ornata2
Slender Glass LizardOphisaurus attenuatus2
Wood TurtleGlyptemys insculpta2
Eastern RibbonsnakeThamnophis sauritus1
Prairie Ring-necked SnakeDiadophis punctatus arnyi1
Six-lined RacerunnerAspidoscelis sexlineata1
Timber RattlesnakeCrotalus horridus1
Western RibbonsnakeThamnophis proximus1

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
Teloschistes chrysophthalmus Gold-eye Lichen 2


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

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


Surrogate Grasslands Photos

Surrogate Grasslands Photo

Large patches of contiguous grassland consisting of CRP lands, pasture, hayfields, small native prairies, occur in a few parts of SW WI, provide habitat for many grassland species.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Surrogate Grasslands Photo

Surrogate grasslands, prairie pasture, small scattered native prairie. Extensive grasslands occur at only a few sites in WI, <1% of the former prairie acreage still exists.

Photo by Thomas Meyer.

Surrogate Grasslands Photo

Photo by Thomas Meyer.

Surrogate Grasslands Photo

Extensive grasslands, some of them never plowed, in southwestern Iowa 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