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Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape

Download the Northwest Sands chapter [PDF] of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin. This chapter provides a detailed assessment of the ecological and socioeconomic conditions for the Northwest Sands. 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


1,956 square miles (1,251,723 acres) of land surface are within the Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape. This is 3.5% of the land area of the State of Wisconsin.


Mean annual temperature (41.30 F) is similar to other northern Ecological Landscapes. Annual precipitation averages 31.4 inches and annual snowfall about 61 inches, also similar to other northern Ecological Landscapes. The growing season is short and averages 121 days. Although there is adequate rainfall to support agricultural row crops such as corn, the sandy soil and short growing season limit row crop agriculture, especially in the northern part of the Ecological Landscape.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


Underlying bedrock at the southern edge of the Northwest Sands is Cambrian quartzose and glauconitic sandstone and silt-stone. In the northern portion, the bedrock is Precambrian basalt, lithic conglomerate, shale, and feldspathic to quartzose sandstone. Bedrock is covered with 100 to 600 feet of glacial drift (sand, gravel, and silt), with the thickest deposits in the northern half. No terrestrial bedrock exposures are known from this Ecological Landscape.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

Geology & Landforms

This Ecological Landscape is the most extensive and continuous xeric glacial outwash system in northern Wisconsin. It has two major geomorphic components. One is a large outwash plain pitted with depressions, or "kettle lakes." The other component is a former spillway of Glacial Lake Duluth (which preceded Lake Superior) and its associated terraces. The spillway is now a river valley occupied by the St. Croix and Bois Brule Rivers. The hills in the northeast are formed primarily of sand, deposited as ice-contact fans at the outlet of subglacial tunnels. Lacustrine deposits (especially fine materials of low permeability such as clays) from Glacial Lake Grantsburg underlie Crex Meadows and Fish Lake Wildlife Areas, and are responsible for impeding drainage, leading to the formation of the large wetlands there.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


Upland soils are typically sands or loamy sands over deeper-lying strata of sand, or sand mixed with gravel. These soils drain rapidly, leading to xeric, droughty conditions within the Ecological Landscape. Wetlands in low-lying depressions have organic soils of peat or muck.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


This Ecological Landscape has significant concentrations of glacial kettle lakes, most of them seepage lakes, a well-developed pattern of drainage lakes, and several large wetland complexes. The lakes cover roughly 4.8% of the area of the Northwest Sands, the third highest percentage among ecological landscapes in Wisconsin. The headwaters of the St. Croix and Bois Brule rivers are here. Major rivers include the St. Croix, Namekagon, Yellow, and Totagatic. Springs and seepages are common along the Upper Bois Brule but local elsewhere.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

Current Landcover

Landcover is a mix of dry forest, barrens, grassland, and agriculture, with wetlands occupying significant parts of the bed of extinct Glacial Lake Grantsburg, kettle depressions, and some river valleys. Within the forested portion, pine, aspen-birch, and oak are roughly equally dominant. The maple-basswood, spruce-fir, and bottomland hardwood forest types occupy small percentages of the Ecological Landscape's forests. The open lands include a large proportion of grassland and shrubland. Emergent/wet meadow and open water are significant in the southern part of the Northwest Sands. There is very little row-crop agriculture.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

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Socioeconomic Conditions
(based on data from Bayfield, Burnett, Douglas and Washburn counties)


90,010, 1.6% of the state total

Population Density

20 persons/ sq. mile

Per Capita Income


Important Economic Sectors

The largest employment sectors in 2007 were: Government (18.7%); Tourism-related (15.8%), Retail trade (10.7%); Health care and social services (9.7%). Although forestry does not have a large impact on the number of jobs, it is the sector that has the largest impact on the natural resources in the Ecological Landscape.

Public Ownership

Forty-eight percent of the land and water in the NWS EL is in public ownership. Federal lands include parts of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. Important state-owned lands include Crex Meadows, Fish Lake, Amsterdam Sloughs, and Douglas County Wildlife Areas, and parts of the Brule River and Governor Knowles State Forests. Extensive county forests are owned and managed by Bayfield, Burnett, Douglas, and Washburn counties. The Wisconsin DNR leases county land for the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area explicitly for barrens management. 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 at the end of this chapter.

Other Notable Ownerships

The Wisconsin Chapter of The Nature Conservancy has developed conservation agreements with a number of persons owning land along and near the Brule River in Douglas County.

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Considerations for Planning & Management

Lakeshore development has been occurring at a rapid rate, partly because of this Ecological Landscape's close proximity to the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. The sandy soils are low in productivity and highly erodible, and great care must be taken when planning and conducting timber harvests, and in using motorized recreational vehicles such as ATVs, to avoid causing damage to slopes and fragile vegetation. Many rare plants and animals occur here, especially in the barrens and sedge meadow habitats, and these need consideration when planning and conducting management activities here. Increasing connectivity between patches of open or semi-open lands such as pine or oak barrens remnants, and reducing habitat fragmentation and isolation, are major management considerations for the Northwest Sands. Achieving greater connectivity between open habitats may be accomplished by the use of firebreaks, rights-of-way, pastureland, CRP, or other types of non-forested cover. There is typically sharp contrast ("hard edge") between the open, non-forested habitats and the surrounding dry forests. Identifying areas where some of this high contrast hard edge may be reduced is needed to plan for and provide greater structural variability in the dynamic barrens ecosystems and to better meet the needs of species not well adapted to either very open or densely canopied habitats. In recent years there has been a great increase in the amount of land planted up to pine plantations, usually at the expense of dry forest and barrens communities. Much of the vegetation here is dependent on periodic disturbance, especially via the use of prescribed fire. Some types of land disturbance can facilitate the colonization and spread of invasive plants. Leafy spurge and spotted knapweed are among the invasive plants currently posing problems in sandy uplands. Common reed is present in some open wetlands and may be increasing. Glossy buckthorn has been reported from the extensive cedar swamps along the upper Brule River.  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 Northwest Sands 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 scutatum2
Mink FrogLithobates septentrionalis2
Pickerel FrogLithobates palustris1

Ants, wasps, and beesScore
Indiscriminate Cuckoo Bumble BeeBombus insularis2
Confusing Bumble BeeBombus perplexus1
Yellow Bumble BeeBombus fervidus1
Yellowbanded Bumble BeeBombus terricola1

Aquatic and terrestrial snailsScore
Appalachian PillarCochlicopa morseana1
Boreal TopZoogenetes harpa1
Cherrystone DropHendersonia occulta1

A Crawling Water BeetleHaliplus apostolicus3
A Leaf BeetlePachybrachis luridus3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleRhantus sericans3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleHydroporus morio3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleHydrocolus rubyae3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleHydrocolus persimilis3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleAgabus leptapsis3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleHygrotus falli3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleHygrotus compar3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleHygrotus farctus3
A Riffle BeetleStenelmis quadrimaculata3
A Riffle BeetleStenelmis antennalis3
A Water Scavenger BeetleHelophorus latipenis3
A Water Scavenger BeetleAgabetes acuductus3
Northern Barrens Tiger BeetleCicindela patruela patruela3
Robust Dubiraphian Riffle BeetleDubiraphia robusta3
Sylvan Hygrotus Diving BeetleHygrotus sylvanus3
A Leaf BeetlePachybrachis peccans1
A Leaf BeetleDistigmoptera impennata1
A Minute Moss BeetleHydraena angulicollis1
A Pear-shaped WeevilSayapion segnipes1
A Straight-snouted WeevilEutrichapion huron1

American BitternBotaurus lentiginosus3
American WoodcockScolopax minor3
Black TernChlidonias niger3
Black-backed WoodpeckerPicoides arcticus3
BobolinkDolichonyx oryzivorus3
Common NighthawkChordeiles minor3
Connecticut WarblerOporornis agilis3
Eastern Whip-poor-willAntrostomus vociferus3
Golden-winged WarblerVermivora chrysoptera3
Le Conte's SparrowAmmodramus leconteii3
Least FlycatcherEmpidonax minimus3
Nelson's SparrowAmmodramus nelsoni3
Red-headed WoodpeckerMelanerpes erythrocephalus3
Sharp-tailed GrouseTympanuchus phasianellus3
Upland SandpiperBartramia longicauda3
Vesper SparrowPooecetes gramineus3
Yellow RailCoturnicops noveboracensis3
Brewer's BlackbirdEuphagus cyanocephalus2
Eastern MeadowlarkSturnella magna2
Grasshopper SparrowAmmodramus savannarum2
Least BitternIxobrychus exilis2
Northern GoshawkAccipiter gentilis2
Olive-sided FlycatcherContopus cooperi2
Purple MartinProgne subis2
Red-necked GrebePodiceps grisegena2
Red-shouldered HawkButeo lineatus2
Rusty BlackbirdEuphagus carolinus2
Wilson's PhalaropePhalaropus tricolor2
American Black DuckAnas rubripes1
Boreal ChickadeePoecile hudsonicus1
Common GoldeneyeBucephala clangula1
DickcisselSpiza americana1
Gray JayPerisoreus canadensis1
Kirtland's WarblerSetophaga kirtlandii1
Loggerhead ShrikeLanius ludovicianus1
Long-eared OwlAsio otus1
Ruby-crowned KingletRegulus calendula1
Spruce GrouseFalcipennis canadensis1
Swainson's ThrushCatharus ustulatus1
Western MeadowlarkSturnella neglecta1
Yellow-breasted ChatIcteria virens1
Yellow-headed BlackbirdXanthocephalus xanthocephalus1

Butterflies and mothsScore
Chryxus ArcticOeneis chryxus3
Karner BlueLycaeides melissa samuelis3
Mottled Dusky WingErynnis martialis3
Phlox MothSchinia indiana3
Cobweb SkipperHesperia metea2
Cross Line SkipperPolites origenes2
Doll's MeroloncheAcronicta dolli2
Dusted SkipperAtrytonopsis hianna2
Gorgone Checker SpotChlosyne gorgone2
Gray CopperLycaena dione2
Owl-eyed Bird Dropping MothCerma cora2
Persius Dusky WingErynnis persius2
Columbine Dusky WingErynnis lucilius1
Leadplant Flower MothSchinia lucens1
Liatris Borer MothPapaipema beeriana1
Whitney's Underwing MothCatocala whitneyi1

A Humpless Casemaker CaddisflyBrachycentrus lateralis3

Dragonflies and damselfliesScore
Extra-striped SnaketailOphiogomphus anomalus3
Forcipate EmeraldSomatochlora forcipata3
Pronghorn ClubtailGomphus graslinellus3
Sioux (Sand) SnaketailOphiogomphus smithi3
St. Croix SnaketailOphiogomphus susbehcha3
Alkali BluetEnallagma clausum1
Delta-spotted SpiketailCordulegaster diastatops1
Incurvate EmeraldSomatochlora incurvata1
Lake EmeraldSomatochlora cingulata1
Mottled DarnerAeshna clepsydra1
Plains EmeraldSomatochlora ensigera1
Ringed BoghaunterWilliamsonia lintneri1
Spatterdock DarnerRhionaeschna mutata1
Sphagnum SpriteNehalennia gracilis1
Subarctic DarnerAeshna subarctica1
Zigzag DarnerAeshna sitchensis1

Least DarterEtheostoma microperca3
Pugnose ShinerNotropis anogenus3
River RedhorseMoxostoma carinatum3
Gilt DarterPercina evides2
Lake SturgeonAcipenser fulvescens2

A Non-biting MidgePseudodiamesa pertinax3

Grasshoppers and alliesScore
A Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus foedus3
Clear-winged GrasshopperCamnula pellucida3
Rocky Mountain Sprinkled LocustChloealtis abdominalis3
Spotted-winged GrasshopperOrphulella pelidna3
Blue-legged GrasshopperMelanoplus flavidus2
Bruner's Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus bruneri2
Club-horned GrasshopperAeropedellus clavatus2
Crackling Forest GrasshopperTrimerotropis verruculata2
Forest LocustMelanoplus islandicus2
Gladston's Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus gladstoni2
Speckled Rangeland GrasshopperArphia conspersa2
Stone's LocustMelanoplus stonei2
Ash-brown GrasshopperTrachyrhachys kiowa1
Grizzly Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus punctulatus1
Huckleberry Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus fasciatus1
Mermiria GrasshopperMermiria bivittata1
Obscure GrasshopperOpeia obscura1
Plains Yellow-winged GrasshopperArphia simplex1
Scudder's Short-winged GrasshopperMelanoplus scudderi1
Short-winged GrasshopperDichromorpha viridis1
Showy GrasshopperHesperotettix speciosus1
Velvet-striped GrasshopperEritettix simplex1

Leafhoppers and true bugsScore
An Issid PlanthopperFitchiella robertsonii2
A LeafhopperPrairiana kansana1

Franklin's Ground SquirrelPoliocitellus franklinii3
Northern Flying SquirrelGlaucomys sabrinus3
Big Brown BatEptesicus fuscus2
Little Brown BatMyotis lucifugus2
Water ShrewSorex palustris2
Woodland Jumping MouseNapaeozapus insignis2
Northern Long-eared BatMyotis septentrionalis1
Silver-haired BatLasionycteris noctivagans1

A Flat-headed MayflyRhithrogena undulata3
A Flat-headed MayflyMacdunnoa persimplex3
A Small Minnow MayflyPlauditus cestus3
A Spiny Crawler MayflyDrunella cornuta3
Wisconsin Small Square-gilled MayflyCercobrachys lilliei3
A Flat-headed MayflyMaccaffertium pulchellum2
A Cleft-footed Minnow MayflyMetretopus borealis1
A Spiny Crawler MayflyEurylophella aestiva1

Mussels and clamsScore
ElktoeAlasmidonta marginata2
Purple WartybackCyclonaias tuberculata2
SpectaclecaseCumberlandia monodonta2
Eastern ElliptioElliptio complanata1
Salamander MusselSimpsonaias ambigua1

Blanding's TurtleEmydoidea blandingii3
GophersnakePituophis catenifer3
Prairie SkinkPlestiodon septentrionalis3
Wood TurtleGlyptemys insculpta3
Eastern RibbonsnakeThamnophis sauritus1

A Perlodid StoneflyIsogenoides frontalis3
A Perlodid StoneflyIsogenoides olivaceus2

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
Asclepias ovalifolia Dwarf Milkweed 3
Botrychium pallidum Pale Moonwort 3
Callitriche hermaphroditica Autumnal Water-starwort 3
Dalea villosa var. villosa Silky Prairie-clover 3
Leucophysalis grandiflora Large-flowered Ground-cherry 3
Oxytropis campestris var. chartacea Fassett's Locoweed 3
Poa paludigena Bog Bluegrass 3
Ranunculus lapponicus Lapland Buttercup 3
Stuckenia filiformis ssp. occidentalis Slender Pondweed 3
Calypso bulbosa Calypso Orchid 2
Carex michauxiana Michaux's Sedge 2
Eriophorum russeolum ssp. leiocarpum Russet Cotton-grass 2
Huperzia selago Fir Clubmoss 2
Liatris punctata var. nebraskana Dotted Blazing Star 2
Littorella uniflora American Shoreweed 2
Najas gracillima Thread-like Naiad 2
Platanthera hookeri Hooker's Orchid 2
Potamogeton perfoliatus Clasping-leaf Pondweed 2
Pyrola minor Lesser Wintergreen 2
Sceptridium rugulosum Rugulose Grape-fern 2
Schoenoplectus heterochaetus Slender Bulrush 2
Scleria triglomerata Whip Nutrush 2
Symphyotrichum robynsianum Robyns' Aster 2
Tephroseris palustris Marsh Ragwort 2
Viola sagittata var. ovata Sand Violet 2
Boechera missouriensis Missouri Rock-cress 1
Carex prasina Drooping Sedge 1
Cirsium hillii Hill's Thistle 1
Cypripedium arietinum Ram's-head Lady's-slipper 1
Equisetum palustre Marsh Horsetail 1
Juglans cinerea Butternut 1
Malaxis monophyllos var. brachypoda White Adder's-mouth 1
Nuphar microphylla Small Yellow Pond Lily 1
Parnassia palustris Marsh Grass-of-Parnassus 1
Petasites sagittatus Sweet Colt's-foot 1
Phemeranthus rugospermus Prairie Fame-flower 1
Potamogeton oakesianus Oakes' Pondweed 1
Rhynchospora fusca Brown Beak-rush 1
Schoenoplectus torreyi Torrey's Bulrush 1
Sparganium glomeratum Clustered Bur-reed 1
Vaccinium vitis-idaea Mountain Cranberry 1

Community opportunities

Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan graphic

Natural community management opportunities

The Northwest Sands 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.

General opportunities

General management opportunities 1

The Northwest Sands is the best place in Wisconsin and, arguably, the planet to manage for the globally rare Pine Barrens community. Large-scale barrens management is possible here because of the ecological suitability of the land, the presence of numerous remnants and substantial public ownership. There are opportunities to connect existing barrens remnants and restoration projects with corridors and manage them with a mosaic of compatible vegetation types. Prescribed fire and other management tools can be used to develop more diverse structural characteristics and to enhance or restore species composition in many pine-oak barrens communities.

Some of the state's best places to manage for dry forests of jack pine, northern pin oak and red pine are found here. There are also opportunities to manage for older dry-mesic white pine-red pine-red oak forests, in the rugged northern part of the landscape, on the slopes above the Bois Brule River in Douglas County, along the St. Croix River in Burnett and Polk counties and at scattered locations elsewhere.

Wetlands are extensive, provide habitat for many sensitive species and represent major management opportunities. The open meadows and marshes in the southwestern part of the Northwest Sands are particularly important because of their size, condition, intact hydrology and the presence of numerous habitat specialists. Some of the larger marshes are within the managed flowages at Crex Meadows and Fish Lake Wildlife Areas and at Gordon on the St. Croix River. Acid peatlands of black spruce-tamarack swamp, muskeg, open bog and poor fen are widespread and common, especially in areas of pitted outwash, where lakes and poorly drained kettle depressions are important landscape features.

The Northwest Sands harbors significant concentrations of glacial kettle lakes. Development pressures are high. The lakes provide high quality habitats for aquatic organisms, resident and migratory birds and many other species. Inland Beaches are rare, localized, or absent in most of Wisconsin. Here, beach communities occupy the sand and gravel littoral zones of softwater seepage lakes with upland shorelines and which experience naturally fluctuating water levels. There is a need to conduct an inventory of lacustrine and beach habitats to identify the best occurrences and associated rare species populations. The protection of undeveloped lakes and associated high-quality habitats is a significant opportunity in the Northwest Sands.

The St. Croix, Namekagon, Totagatic, Bois Brule and Eau Claire rivers warrant special attention because of their excellent water quality, exceptional aquatic biota, recreational opportunities and aesthetic features. The north-south orientation of the St. Croix and Bois Brule rivers, along with the generally unfragmented condition of the forests bordering these rivers, makes them highly significant to migratory birds and probably, to other species. The extensive white cedar swamp along the upper Bois Brule River is among Wisconsin's best examples of that community type and merits strong protection. Excellent occurrences of alder thicket, springs and spring seeps and spring ponds also occur along the upper Brule and present additional management and protection opportunities.

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


Northwest Sands 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 Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape. The Northwest Sands 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