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Ryan O'Connor
Natural Heritage Inventory Ecologist

Oak Barrens

State Rank: S2     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 Oak Barrens in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database.

Black oak (Quercus velutina) is often the dominant tree in this fire-adapted savanna community of xeric sites, but white oak (Quercus alba), bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), northern pin oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis), and occasionally red oak (Quercus rubra), may also be present. Common understory species include leadplant (Amorpha canescens), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), round-headed bush-clover (Lespedeza capitata), goat's rue (Tephrosia virginiana), June grass (Koeleria macrantha), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), frostweed (Crocanthemum canadense), false Solomon's-seals (Maianthemum racemosum and M. stellatum), spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis), and wild lupine (Lupinus perennis). Some of the oak barrens remnants also contain patches of heath-like vegetation in addition to the prairie understory, with bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum), blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium and V. myrtilloides), bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), and sweet-fern (Comptonia peregrina) locally common or even dominant. Distribution of this community is mostly in southwestern, central and west central Wisconsin.

The pine barrens and oak barrens communities described by Curtis (1959) share many similarities. In general, prairie species are better represented in the more oak-dominated barrens to the south, and pines and some of their characteristic associates are more prominent in the north. However, jack pine is an important component of some of Wisconsin's southernmost barrens occurrences (e.g., Gotham Jack Pines on the Wisconsin River in Richland County), and both red pine savanna and jack pine barrens were described in the Public Land Survey notes for Juneau County. Frequent fires can reduce the oaks to short, multi-stemmed "grubs", and result in the elimination of scattered large oaks that were formerly important in and characteristic of some areas.

Barrens communities occur on several landforms, especially outwash plains, lakeplains, and on the broad sandy terraces that flank some of the major rivers of southern Wisconsin. Soils are usually excessively well-drained sands, though thin-soiled, droughty sites over bedrock can also support this community. Similar communities include pine barrens, oak opening (drier sites), sand prairie, southern dry forest, central sands pine-oak forest, and bedrock glade.

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 Oak 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
American Bumble BeeBombus pensylvanicus1
Confusing Bumble BeeBombus perplexus1
Indiscriminate Cuckoo Bumble BeeBombus insularis1
Yellow Bumble BeeBombus fervidus1

Aquatic and terrestrial snailsScore
Wing SnaggletoothGastrocopta procera1

A Leaf BeetleDistigmoptera impennata3
A Pear-shaped WeevilSayapion segnipes3
Ghost Tiger BeetleEllipsoptera lepida3
Northern Barrens Tiger BeetleCicindela patruela patruela3
A Leaf BeetlePachybrachis luridus2
A Pear-shaped WeevilTrichapion perforicolle2
A Leaf BeetlePachybrachis peccans1
A Leaf BeetleCryptocephalus venustus1
A Leaf BeetleGlyptina leptosoma1
A Pear-shaped WeevilFallapion impeditum1

Common NighthawkChordeiles minor3
Eastern Whip-poor-willAntrostomus vociferus3
Lark SparrowChondestes grammacus3
Sharp-tailed GrouseTympanuchus phasianellus3
Vesper SparrowPooecetes gramineus3
Brewer's BlackbirdEuphagus cyanocephalus2
Grasshopper SparrowAmmodramus savannarum2
Loggerhead ShrikeLanius ludovicianus2
Red-headed WoodpeckerMelanerpes erythrocephalus2
Upland SandpiperBartramia longicauda2
Western MeadowlarkSturnella neglecta2
American WoodcockScolopax minor1
DickcisselSpiza americana1
Long-eared OwlAsio otus1
Olive-sided FlycatcherContopus cooperi1
Yellow-breasted ChatIcteria virens1

Butterflies and mothsScore
Doll's MeroloncheAcronicta dolli3
Frosted ElfinCallophrys irus3
Karner BlueLycaeides melissa samuelis3
Mottled Dusky WingErynnis martialis3
Persius Dusky WingErynnis persius3
Phlox MothSchinia indiana3
Cobweb SkipperHesperia metea2
Cross Line SkipperPolites origenes2
Dusted SkipperAtrytonopsis hianna2
Gorgone Checker SpotChlosyne gorgone2
Owl-eyed Bird Dropping MothCerma cora2
Sprague's PygarcticaPygarctia spraguei2
Bina Flower MothSchinia bina1
Chryxus ArcticOeneis chryxus1
Phyllira Tiger MothGrammia phyllira1
Silphium Borer MothPapaipema silphii1

Grasshoppers and alliesScore
Mermiria GrasshopperMermiria bivittata3
Stone's LocustMelanoplus stonei3
A Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus foedus2
Ash-brown GrasshopperTrachyrhachys kiowa2
Blue-legged GrasshopperMelanoplus flavidus2
Green-streak GrasshopperHesperotettix viridis2
Huckleberry Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus fasciatus2
Plains Yellow-winged GrasshopperArphia simplex2
Scudder's Short-winged GrasshopperMelanoplus scudderi2
Speckled Rangeland GrasshopperArphia conspersa2
Clear-winged GrasshopperCamnula pellucida1
Club-horned GrasshopperAeropedellus clavatus1
Forest LocustMelanoplus islandicus1
Gladston's Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus gladstoni1
Obscure GrasshopperOpeia obscura1
Rocky Mountain Sprinkled LocustChloealtis abdominalis1
Short-winged GrasshopperDichromorpha viridis1
Spotted-winged GrasshopperOrphulella pelidna1

Leafhoppers and true bugsScore
A LeafhopperLaevicephalus vannus3
A LeafhopperParaphlepsius maculosus3
A LeafhopperPrairiana kansana3
Prairie LeafhopperPolyamia dilata2
An Issid PlanthopperBruchomorpha extensa1

Franklin's Ground SquirrelPoliocitellus franklinii3
Northern Long-eared BatMyotis septentrionalis2
Prairie Deer MousePeromyscus maniculatus bairdii2
Prairie VoleMicrotus ochrogaster2
Big Brown BatEptesicus fuscus1
Little Brown BatMyotis lucifugus1
Tricolored BatPerimyotis subflavus1
Woodland VoleMicrotus pinetorum1

Blanding's TurtleEmydoidea blandingii3
Eastern MassasaugaSistrurus catenatus3
GophersnakePituophis catenifer3
Prairie SkinkPlestiodon septentrionalis3
Six-lined RacerunnerAspidoscelis sexlineata3
Slender Glass LizardOphisaurus attenuatus3
Wood TurtleGlyptemys insculpta3
North American RacerColuber constrictor2
Prairie Ring-necked SnakeDiadophis punctatus arnyi2
Western RibbonsnakeThamnophis proximus2
Gray RatsnakePantherophis spiloides1
Ornate Box TurtleTerrapene ornata1
Plains GartersnakeThamnophis radix1

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
Agalinis gattingeri Roundstem Foxglove 2
Agalinis skinneriana Pale False Foxglove 3
Asclepias lanuginosa Woolly Milkweed 3
Asclepias ovalifolia Dwarf Milkweed 3
Baptisia tinctoria Yellow Wild-indigo 3
Boechera missouriensis Missouri Rock-cress 3
Commelina erecta var. deamiana Narrow-leaved Dayflower 2
Juncus marginatus Grassleaf Rush 2
Liatris punctata var. nebraskana Dotted Blazing Star 1
Opuntia fragilis Brittle Prickly-pear 2
Packera plattensis Prairie Ragwort 2
Phemeranthus rugospermus Prairie Fame-flower 2
Piptatheropsis canadensis Canada Mountain Ricegrass 2
Polytaenia nuttallii Prairie Parsley 2
Pseudognaphalium micradenium Catfoot 2
Vaccinium pallidum Blue Ridge Blueberry 3
Viola sagittata var. ovata Sand Violet 3


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

Map of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin.

Ecological LandscapeOpportunity
Central Sand PlainsMajor
Northwest SandsMajor
Western Coulee and RidgesMajor
Central Sand HillsImportant
Southwest SavannaPresent

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

Central Sand Hills

Oak barrens are not well represented in this Ecological Landscape, but there are good opportunities for restoration at small to medium scales. Opportunities occur at Rocky Run Savanna State Natural Area (Columbia County) Lawrence Creek State Natural Area (Adams and Marquette Counties), and Emmons Creek State Fishery Area (Portage County).

Central Sand Plains

The large public land base in the Central Sand Plains Ecological Landscape can be used to accomplish barrens restoration and management objectives. Opportunities to develop partnerships with private groups should be explored and fostered. Restoration and management efforts are underway at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (Juneau County), Bauer-Brockway Barrens (Jackson County Forest), Quincy Bluff and Wetlands State Natural Area (Adams County), and Sandhill State Wildlife Area (Wood County). There are legitimate restoration opportunities on the Black River State Forest (Jackson County).

Western Coulee and Ridges

Excellent examples of oak barrens occur at Fort McCoy Military Reservation (Monroe County). There are some distinctive and important occurrences of barrens (that include jack pine) on the broad terraces bordering some of the major rivers in the Ecological Landscape, e.g., North Bend Bottoms State Wildlife Area (Jackson County), Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge (Trempealeau County), and Nine Mile Island Savanna (Pepin County). Additional survey work is warranted on some of the major river terraces, especially the Black.


Oak Barrens Photos

Oak Barrens Photo

Large oak barrens-sand prairie complex at Fort McCoy Military Reservation. Numerous rare plants and animals have been documented here.

Photo by Eric Epstein.

Oak Barrens Photo

Restoration of this mixed pine-oak barrens by the USFWS began several decades ago. Canopy closure and dense understory brush were reduced using mechanical means along with periodic prescribed fire.

Photo by Armund Bartz.

Oak Barrens Photo

Oak barrens at Mazomanie Oak Barrens SNA dominated by prairie grasses with plains coreopsis and leadplant, both excellent indicators of high-quality barrens.

Photo by Ryan O'Connor.

Oak Barrens Photo

Oak barrens dominated by sedges, prairie grassess, goat's-rue, and plains coreopsis at Mazomanie Oak Barrens SNA.

Photo by Ryan O'Connor.

Oak Barrens Photo

Oak barrens at Crex Meadows Wildlife Area with black oak grubs, prairie willow, field sagewort, wild bergamot, and plains coreopsis.

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