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Andy Stoltman

Northern Highland Ecological Landscape

Download the Northern Highland chapter [PDF] of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin. This chapter provides a detailed assessment of the ecological and socioeconomic conditions for the Northern Highland. It also identifies important planning and management considerations and suggests management opportunities that are compatible with the ecology of the landscape. The tabs below provide additional information.

Landscape at a Glance

Physical & Biotic Environment


2,081 square miles (1,331,970 acres), representing 3.7% of the total land area of the State of Wisconsin.


Typical of northern Wisconsin, with a mean growing season of 122 days. The mean annual temperature is 39.5 deg. F, the lowest of any Ecological Landscape in the state and almost 2 degrees lower than other northern ecological landscapes. The mean annual precipitation is 31.6 inches, similar to other northern ecological landscapes. The mean annual snowfall is 68.1 inches, the second largest amount of snowfall in the state. Only the Superior Coastal Plain receives more snowfall (87.4 inches). Snowfall varies dramatically within the Northern Highland, with the northern part of the Ecological Landscape being within the outer edge of the lake effect "snowbelt" of Upper Michigan and northwestern Wisconsin. The cool temperatures, short growing season, and sandy soils are not adequate to support agricultural row crops, such as corn. Only about one percent of the Northern Highland is used for agricultural purposes. The climate is favorable for forests, which cover more than 76% of the Ecological Landscape.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


Predominantly igneous and metamorphic rock, generally covered by deposits of glacial drift from 5 to over 100 feet in depth.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

Geology & Landforms

Most of the Ecological Landscape is an undulating, gently rolling glacial outwash plain with many kettle lakes, wetlands, and bogs. Remnant moraines and drumlins occur often, with their lower slopes covered with outwash sands.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


Most soils are sands and gravels, some with a loamy mantle. Soil productivity is low compared to glacial till but relatively high for outwash sands. Wetlands are numerous; most have organic soils of peat or muck.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


There is a globally significant concentration of glacial lakes in the Northern Highland: 4,291 lakes; 1,543 miles of streams, including the headwaters of the Wisconsin and Manitowish-Flambeau-Chippewa river systems. Many lakes are connected by small streams. Rare aquatic species and extensive wetlands (see below) occur here.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

Current Landcover

48% upland forest, 34% wetlands (both forested and non-forested), 13% open water, 5% grassland and open land, and 1% urban.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

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Socioeconomic Conditions
(based on data from Iron, Oneida and Vilas counties)


65,660, 1.2% of the state total

Population Density

23 persons/ sq. mile

Per Capita Income


Important Economic Sectors

Retail trade (16%); accommodation and food services (11%), construction (10%) and real estate, rental, and leasing (5%) sectors led in 2002, reflecting high recreation and rural development. Forestry, residential development, and recreation have the largest impacts on the Ecological Landscape's natural resources.

Public Ownership

30% of the land area and 43% of the forestland in the Ecological Landscape is in public ownership. Some of the larger properties are the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, Turtle-Flambeau Flowage, Willow Flowage, and the Iron, Vilas, and Oneida County Forests. A map showing public land ownership (county, state, and federal) and private lands enrolled in the Forest Tax Programs in this Ecological Landscape can be found in Appendix K at the end of this chapter.

Other Notable Ownerships

Tribal ownership is significant, as the large reservation of the Lac du Flambeau band of the Ojibwa Nation is here. The University of Wisconsin maintains research-oriented Field Stations at Trout Lake and Kemp Station, and also has stewardship responsibilities for several ecologically significant tracts.

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Considerations for Planning & Management

There has been a steady increase in both seasonal and permanent residents, creating a pattern of dispersed urbanization. This has been especially evident along shorelines, where habitat loss has occurred in the littoral zone and on lands adjacent to the shore. Residential development is also increasing in the forests which surround many lakes. Population growth and associated development appear likely to limit some management options in the future, such as the ability to manage at large scales, maintaining ecosystem connectivity, protecting important spawning, nesting, and foraging habitats. Restoration of shoreline habitats and the processes that maintain them will become more difficult over time.

Several large industrial forest holdings have changed ownership in recent years. In some cases these properties have been sold to public agencies, but they may also be sold to other industrial owners, real estate developers, or other private entities. When large contiguous ownerships are broken up habitat fragmentation is often one of the results, and this parcelization makes it difficult to meet the desires of all of the new landowners, potentially limiting management options. Development of seasonal and permanent homes, along with roads and other infrastructure to service the residents, has also increased habitat fragmentation and reduced the size of formerly connected habitats.

Excessive deer herbivory can suppress or eliminate the regeneration of trees such as hemlock and white cedar, and reduce populations of sensitive understory plants, including native plants in the lily and orchid families. The winter feeding of deer can lead to increased overwinter deer survival, larger deer populations than habitats can sustain, and ultimately, serious habitat damage.

Invasive species are present in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. The "Clean Boats, Clean Waters" program and other educational efforts attempt to limit the introduction and spread of invasive species to aquatic habitats, but more awareness, persistence and follow-through are needed. In terrestrial ecosystems, some invasive species are present but most are not yet abundant enough to cause serious problems - making this the most effective time to initiate control measures.  Learn more about management opportunities from the chapter [PDF]

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Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan graphic

Species of Greatest Conservation Need

The following species are listed according to their probability of occurring in the Northern Highland Ecological Landscape, based on the findings in Wisconsin's 2015 Wildlife Action Plan.

See the key to association scores [PDF] for complete definitions.

Four-toed SalamanderHemidactylium scutatum3
Mink FrogLithobates septentrionalis3

Ants, wasps, and beesScore
Frigid Bumble BeeBombus frigidus3
Sanderson's Bumble BeeBombus sandersoni3
Confusing Bumble BeeBombus perplexus2
Yellowbanded Bumble BeeBombus terricola2
Yellow Bumble BeeBombus fervidus1

Aquatic and terrestrial snailsScore
Appalachian PillarCochlicopa morseana1
Boreal TopZoogenetes harpa1
Bright GlyphGlyphyalinia wheatleyi1
Cherrystone DropHendersonia occulta1
Sculpted GlyphGlyphyalinia rhoadsi1

A Predaceous Diving BeetleLioporeus triangularis3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleHydroporus morio3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleHydrocolus rubyae3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleAgabus leptapsis3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleHygrotus compar3
A Riffle BeetleStenelmis musgravei3
A Water Scavenger BeetleHelophorus latipenis3
Robust Dubiraphian Riffle BeetleDubiraphia robusta3
A Water Scavenger BeetleAgabetes acuductus2
A Minute Moss BeetleHydraena angulicollis1
Ghost Tiger BeetleEllipsoptera lepida1
Northern Barrens Tiger BeetleCicindela patruela patruela1

American WoodcockScolopax minor3
Black TernChlidonias niger3
Black-backed WoodpeckerPicoides arcticus3
Boreal ChickadeePoecile hudsonicus3
Connecticut WarblerOporornis agilis3
Eastern Whip-poor-willAntrostomus vociferus3
Evening GrosbeakCoccothraustes vespertinus3
Golden-winged WarblerVermivora chrysoptera3
Gray JayPerisoreus canadensis3
Least FlycatcherEmpidonax minimus3
Long-eared OwlAsio otus3
Northern GoshawkAccipiter gentilis3
Olive-sided FlycatcherContopus cooperi3
Ruby-crowned KingletRegulus calendula3
Spruce GrouseFalcipennis canadensis3
Swainson's ThrushCatharus ustulatus3
Vesper SparrowPooecetes gramineus3
American BitternBotaurus lentiginosus2
Brewer's BlackbirdEuphagus cyanocephalus2
Common NighthawkChordeiles minor2
Nelson's SparrowAmmodramus nelsoni2
Rusty BlackbirdEuphagus carolinus2
Yellow RailCoturnicops noveboracensis2
American Black DuckAnas rubripes1
BobolinkDolichonyx oryzivorus1
Common GoldeneyeBucephala clangula1
Eastern MeadowlarkSturnella magna1
Grasshopper SparrowAmmodramus savannarum1
Henslow's SparrowAmmodramus henslowii1
Kirtland's WarblerSetophaga kirtlandii1
Least BitternIxobrychus exilis1
Purple MartinProgne subis1
Red-headed WoodpeckerMelanerpes erythrocephalus1
Red-shouldered HawkButeo lineatus1
Upland SandpiperBartramia longicauda1
Western MeadowlarkSturnella neglecta1

Butterflies and mothsScore
Bina Flower MothSchinia bina1
Semirelict Underwing MothCatocala semirelicta1

A Giant Casemaker CaddisflyBanksiola dossuaria3

Dragonflies and damselfliesScore
Forcipate EmeraldSomatochlora forcipata3
Lake EmeraldSomatochlora cingulata3
Mottled DarnerAeshna clepsydra3
Sphagnum SpriteNehalennia gracilis3
Delta-spotted SpiketailCordulegaster diastatops1
Extra-striped SnaketailOphiogomphus anomalus1
Incurvate EmeraldSomatochlora incurvata1
Pronghorn ClubtailGomphus graslinellus1
Sioux (Sand) SnaketailOphiogomphus smithi1
Spatterdock DarnerRhionaeschna mutata1
Subarctic DarnerAeshna subarctica1
Zigzag DarnerAeshna sitchensis1

Longear SunfishLepomis megalotis3
Pugnose ShinerNotropis anogenus3
Lake SturgeonAcipenser fulvescens2
Least DarterEtheostoma microperca2

Grasshoppers and alliesScore
Crackling Forest GrasshopperTrimerotropis verruculata3
A Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus foedus2
Bruner's Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus bruneri2
Clear-winged GrasshopperCamnula pellucida2
Forest LocustMelanoplus islandicus2
Huckleberry Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus fasciatus2
Rocky Mountain Sprinkled LocustChloealtis abdominalis2
Speckled Rangeland GrasshopperArphia conspersa2
Stone's LocustMelanoplus stonei2
Spotted-winged GrasshopperOrphulella pelidna1

Leafhoppers and true bugsScore
A Broad-shouldered Water StriderMicrovelia albonotata3

Northern Flying SquirrelGlaucomys sabrinus3
Northern Long-eared BatMyotis septentrionalis3
Silver-haired BatLasionycteris noctivagans3
Water ShrewSorex palustris3
Woodland Jumping MouseNapaeozapus insignis3
Big Brown BatEptesicus fuscus2
Little Brown BatMyotis lucifugus2
American MartenMartes americana1

A Flat-headed MayflyMaccaffertium pulchellum2
A Large Square-gilled MayflyNeoephemera bicolor1
A Spiny Crawler MayflyDrunella cornuta1
A Spiny Crawler MayflyEurylophella aestiva1

Mussels and clamsScore
ElktoeAlasmidonta marginata1

Wood TurtleGlyptemys insculpta3
Blanding's TurtleEmydoidea blandingii1

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
Eleocharis robbinsii Robbins' Spike-rush 3
Littorella uniflora American Shoreweed 3
Piptatheropsis canadensis Canada Mountain Ricegrass 3
Potamogeton oakesianus Oakes' Pondweed 3
Pseudevernia consocians Common Antler Lichen 3
Stuckenia filiformis ssp. alpina Northern Slender Pondweed 3
Utricularia resupinata Northeastern Bladderwort 3
Callitriche heterophylla Large Water-starwort 2
Calypso bulbosa Calypso Orchid 2
Carex lenticularis Shore Sedge 2
Dryopteris filix-mas Male Fern 2
Juncus stygius Bog Rush 2
Leucophysalis grandiflora Large-flowered Ground-cherry 2
Najas gracillima Thread-like Naiad 2
Nuphar microphylla Small Yellow Pond Lily 2
Penstemon pallidus Pale Beardtongue 2
Poa wolfii Wolf's Bluegrass 2
Potamogeton bicupulatus Snail-seed Pondweed 2
Potamogeton confervoides Algae-leaved Pondweed 2
Potamogeton perfoliatus Clasping-leaf Pondweed 2
Potamogeton vaseyi Vasey's Pondweed 2
Rhynchospora fusca Brown Beak-rush 2
Boechera missouriensis Missouri Rock-cress 1
Carex merritt-fernaldii Fernald's Sedge 1
Dryopteris expansa Spreading Woodfern 1
Epilobium strictum Downy Willow-herb 1
Juglans cinerea Butternut 1
Potamogeton diversifolius Water-thread Pondweed 1
Strophostyles leiosperma Small-flowered Woolly Bean 1

Community opportunities

Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan graphic

Natural community management opportunities

The Northern Highland Ecological Landscape contains opportunities to manage for the following natural communities, based on the findings in the 2015 Wildlife Action Plan (originally presented by the Ecosystem Management Team).

See the key to association scores [PDF] for complete definitions.

Natural Community Type Opportunity
Black Spruce SwampMajor
Conifer PlantationMajor
Coolwater streamsMajor
Emergent MarshMajor
Floating-leaved MarshMajor
Large Lake--deep, hard, seepageMajor
Large Lake--deep, soft+, seepageMajor
Large Lake--shallow, soft, drainageMajor
Northern Dry Mesic--late seralMajor
Northern Sedge MeadowMajor
Northern Tamarack SwampMajor
Northern Wet ForestMajor
Oligotrophic MarshMajor
Open BogMajor
Poor FenMajor
Small Lake--otherMajor
Spring Pond, Lake--SpringMajor
Springs and Spring Runs (Hard)Major
Springs and Spring Runs (Soft)Major
Submergent MarshMajor
Warmwater riversMajor
Warmwater streamsMajor
Wild Rice MarshMajor
Alder ThicketImportant
Boreal Rich FenImportant
Bracken GrasslandImportant
Coldwater streamsImportant
Ephemeral PondImportant
Inland BeachImportant
Lacustrine Mud FlatImportant
Large Lake--deep, hard, drainageImportant
Large Lake--deep, soft, drainageImportant
Large Lake--shallow, hard, seepageImportant
Large Lake--shallow, soft, seepageImportant
Northern Dry Forest--late seralImportant
Northern Mesic Forest--late seralImportant
Northern Wet-mesic ForestImportant
Patterned PeatlandImportant
Riverine Impoundment - ReservoirsImportant
Riverine Lake - PondImportant
Shrub CarrImportant
Bedrock GladePresent
Boreal ForestPresent
Floodplain ForestPresent
Northern Hardwood SwampPresent
Pine BarrensPresent
Riverine Mud FlatPresent
Small Lake--hard, bogPresent
Small Lake--meromicticPresent
Small Lake--soft, bogPresent

General opportunities

General management opportunities 1

The Northern Highland is especially rich in rare species associated with waters and wetlands, including some of the north's most iconic animals, such as the Bald Eagle, Osprey and Common Loon. There are major opportunities to protect aquatic ecosystems, including one of North America's highest concentrations of glacial lakes, some of which are rare lake types. Lakes connected by perennial streams are common here and support a diverse aquatic fauna which includes rare and uncommon species. Protecting undeveloped lakes, restoring disturbed shorelines and protecting the integrity of lake-stream complexes are all extremely important management opportunities. Maintaining forest cover around and between lakes and streams is also needed to maintain high water quality and provide habitat for numerous species.

The landscape's rivers and streams provide critical habitat and support many rare species. Significant protection and management opportunities include the headwaters region and upper stretches of the Wisconsin River, as well as the Manitowish, Tomahawk and Squirrel rivers. A concentration of springs and spring ponds in the northeastern part of the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest offers management opportunities for aquatic species associated with coldwater systems.

The extensive forests here present major opportunities and include the state's greatest acreage of dry-mesic white pine-red pine forests. These could be managed in the wide range of patch sizes, age classes, seral stages and environmental settings characteristic of the Northern Dry-mesic Forest community in this landscape. Other less abundant forest types providing good management opportunities include mesic hemlock-hardwood and northern hardwood forests; swamp conifers of black spruce, tamarack, or white cedar; dry jack pine forests; and hardwood swamps. Red oak, important for both ecological and economical reasons, is now a major forest component in some areas. Paper birch is declining, and regeneration has proven difficult on many sites in the absence of fire. Extensive public ownerships create opportunities to manage these forests at large scales within and across ownerships.

Old forests, a rare and declining resource in Wisconsin, present important opportunities for white pine, red pine, red oak, hemlock-hardwoods, northern hardwoods and swamp conifers. Working forests, both public and privately owned, could include areas with extended rotations, the development of old-growth forest characteristics and/or stands of "managed old-growth."

The Northern Highland historically consisted of a diverse mosaic of habitats, patch sizes, stand ages, ecotones and aquatic features. Although management is often conducted at the stand-level, there are major opportunities here to plan and coordinate management from a much broader perspective to accommodate all patch sizes and ages for forest communities. This would help maintain the full range of habitat diversity needed across the Ecological Landscape.

Abundant wetlands include several of the state's largest and least disturbed acid peatland ecosystems, as well as hardwood swamp, white cedar swamp, shrub communities, emergent marsh and wild rice marsh. These wetlands provide important habitats and are critical for maintaining water quality in the landscape's high-quality lakes and streams. Maintaining wetland hydrology and avoiding conversion to other wetland types is important and necessary to provide habitat for numerous wetland-dependent plants and animals.

1. The text presented here is a summarized version of a longer section developed for the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin.


Northern Highland Landtype Associations

Landtype Associations (LTAs) are units of the National Hierarchical Framework of Ecological Units (NHFEU), a hierarchical ecological land classification system. LTAs are much smaller than Ecological Landscapes, ranging in size from 10,000 and 300,000 acres. In Wisconsin, they are usually based on glacial features like individual moraines or outwash plains. LTAs can be very useful for planning at finer scales within an Ecological Landscape.

The following are the LTAs associated with the Northern Highland Ecological Landscape. The Northern Highland LTA map [PDF] can be used to locate these LTAs. Clicking on an LTA in the list below will open a data table for that LTA in PDF format. Descriptions are included, where available.

Last Revised: July 16, 2020

Southwest Savanna Southern Lake Michigan Coastal Western Coulees and Ridges Southeast Glacial Plains Central Sand Hills Central Lake Michigan Coastal Central Sand Plains Northern Lake Michigan Coastal Northern Lake Michigan Coastal Northeast Sands Western Prairie North Central Forest Northern Highlands Northwest Lowlands Northwest Sands Northwest Lowlands Superior Coastal Plains Forest Transition