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

Great Lakes Beach

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 Great Lakes Beach in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database.

The Great Lakes beach community occurs at the interface of land and water along the margins of Lakes Michigan and Superior, often in association with sparsely vegetated, semi-stabilized dune systems. Great Lakes beaches are extremely dynamic features, strongly influenced by water level changes and storm events. The lower beach is continually impacted by waves, the middle beach supports a dynamic plant community affected by wave action only during storms, and the upper beach, affected by wind-blown sand, wave spray, and only the most severe storms, supports a relatively diverse assemblage of plants.

The beach flora is typically sparse due to the scouring action of waves and ice. However, following several years of low water with few major storm events, the vegetation of the upper beach zone can become quite dense. Floristic composition can be an odd mix that includes globally rare endemics, as well as widespread weedy species adapted to quickly colonizing disturbed areas swept bare of competing vegetation. Exposed shorelines may be entirely unvegetated. Plants endemic to the shores of the Great Lakes, such as seaside spurge (Euphorbia polygonifolia) and American sea-rocket (Cakile edentula), are characteristic of some of the Lake Michigan beaches, especially during low water periods. Native associates may include silverweed (Potentilla anserina), Baltic rush (Juncus balticus), and water horehound (Lycopus americanus). The beaches on Lake Superior are for the most part unvegetated but are important foraging, resting, and breeding areas for both migrating and resident birds.

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 Beach 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

Hairy-necked Tiger BeetleCicindela hirticollis rhodensis3
Ghost Tiger BeetleEllipsoptera lepida1

Caspian TernHydroprogne caspia3
Common TernSterna hirundo3
Piping PloverCharadrius melodus3
Rufa Red KnotCalidris canutus rufa3
Peregrine FalconFalco peregrinus1
Purple MartinProgne subis1

Dragonflies and damselfliesScore
Alkali BluetEnallagma clausum1

Grasshoppers and alliesScore
Lake Huron LocustTrimerotropis huroniana3
Seaside GrasshopperTrimerotropis maritima3
Blue-legged GrasshopperMelanoplus flavidus2
Bruner's Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus bruneri2
Clear-winged GrasshopperCamnula pellucida2
Delicate Meadow KatydidOrchelimum delicatum1
Forest LocustMelanoplus islandicus1
Huckleberry Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus fasciatus1
Scudder's Short-winged GrasshopperMelanoplus scudderi1
Speckled Rangeland GrasshopperArphia conspersa1
Stone's LocustMelanoplus stonei1

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
Cakile edentula var. lacustris American Sea-rocket 3
Carex garberi Elk Sedge 1
Carex merritt-fernaldii Fernald's Sedge 1
Elymus lanceolatus ssp. psammophilus Thickspike 3
Euphorbia polygonifolia Seaside Spurge 3
Festuca occidentalis Western Fescue 2
Parnassia parviflora Small-flowered Grass-of-Parnassus 2
Salix pellita Satiny Willow 3
Salix planifolia ssp. planifolia Tea-leaved Willow 1
Solidago simplex var. gillmanii Dune Goldenrod 3
Tanacetum bipinnatum ssp. huronense Lake Huron Tansy 3


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

Central Lake Michigan Coastal

Point Beach State Forest protects 6 miles of beaches and dunes, which are associated with a complex system of ridges and swales that parallel the Lake Michigan shoreline. Harrington Beach and Kohler-Andrae State Parks protect additional undeveloped shoreline habitats but receive very heavy human visitation during the summer months.

Northern Lake Michigan Coastal

Several examples occur along the west shore of Green Bay, including at Seagull Bar and Peshtigo Harbor. Whitefish Dunes, Rock Island, and Newport State Parks contain important examples of this habitat. Significant populations of rare plants are known from several of these sites.

Superior Coastal Plain

Most beaches on Lake Superior are associated with Great Lakes coastal landforms such as barrier spits, baymouth bars, tombolos, and cuspate forelands. The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore protects several miles of undeveloped beach. At several locations small beaches arch between rocky headlands. The beaches of the Apostle Islands and Chequamegon Bay are important staging areas for migratory birds, and provide critical nesting habitat for shorebirds. Wilderness designation, currently under consideration at the National Lakeshore, could add further protection to several of these sites. Bark Bay Slough, Port Wing Boreal Forest, and Lost Creek Bog are State Natural Areas managed by the WDNR that feature beaches protected by sand bars. Significant beaches occur on tribal lands under the stewardship of the Bad River and Red Cliff bands of Lake Superior Ojibwa. A more disturbed but extensive area of Great Lakes beach occurs at Wisconsin Point, a coastal barrier spit at the mouth of the St. Louis River. Additional beach areas lie at scattered spots along the southern Lake Superior coast from Wisconsin Point to the Montreal River, nearly 150 miles to the east.


Great Lakes Beach Photos

Great Lakes Beach Photo

Great Lakes Beach on Lake Michigan. Kohler Andrae State Park, Sheboygan County.

Photo by Emmet Judziewicz.

Great Lakes Beach Photo

Lake Michigan beach, Point Beach Area, Manitowoc County.

Photo by Emmet Judziewicz.

Great Lakes Beach Photo

Cakile edentula is one of the few plants that can be found growing (or stranded on) Lake Michigan beaches. Point Beach State Forest, Manitowoc County.

Photo by Emmet Judziewicz.

Great Lakes Beach Photo

Undeveloped, unvegetated Great Lakes beach on Lake Superior sandspit. Shorebirds, gulls, terns, raptors, many others make heavy seasonal use of this habitat.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Great Lakes Beach Photo

Great Lakes beach with Canada wild-rye at mouth of the Brule River

Photo by Ryan O'Connor.

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