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Map showing the Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape
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For information on Wisconsin's Ecological Landscapes, contact:
Andy Stoltman

Northwest Lowlands Ecological Landscape

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


675 square miles (431,842 acres), representing 1.2% of the land area of the State. This is Wisconsin's smallest Ecological Landscape but it adjoins, and outside of Wisconsin is considered part of, a much larger ecoregion that extends to the west into Minnesota.


Typical of northern Wisconsin; the mean growing season is 122 days, mean annual temperature is 41.8 deg. F, mean annual precipitation is 30.6, and mean annual snowfall is 49 inches. The cool temperatures and short growing season are not adequate to support agricultural row crops; less than three percent of the land here is used for agricultural purposes and most of this is in the southern "hook" in Burnett County. The climate is favorable for forests, which cover almost 70% of the Ecological Landscape. The cool temperatures and short growing season, along with numerous and large acid peatlands, result in almost boreal-like conditions in parts of the Northwest Lowlands.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


Bedrock outcroppings are rare except in association with the basalt ridge that follows the Douglas County fault line and forms part of the northern boundary of the Northwest Lowlands. Waterfalls, cliffs, bedrock glades, and rock-walled gorges are associated with this bedrock feature. Local, relatively small, exposures of sandstones and conglomerates occur in some of these gorges.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

Geology & Landforms

The major landforms are ground and end moraines, with drumlins present in the southwestern portion. Topography is gently undulating. In the northern part of the Ecological Landscape many stream valleys run northeast-southwest in roughly parallel courses. This is caused by bedrock ridges that were created by harder strata of lava alternating with weaker sedimentary rocks; these were later tilted upward due to rifting and continental collision. This bedrock feature influences the surface topography of the Northwest Lowlands, especially where glacial deposits are thin.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


Soils are predominantly loams, with significant acreages of peat deposits in the poorly drained lowlands. Major river valleys have soils formed in sandy to loamy-skeletal alluvium or in non-acid muck. Alluvial soils range from well drained to very poorly drained, and have areas subject to periodic flooding.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]


This Ecological Landscape occupies a major drainage divide, and contains the headwaters of many streams that flow north toward Lake Superior or south toward the St. Croix River system. Important rivers include the St. Croix, Black, Tamarack, Spruce, and Amnicon. Lakes are uncommon except in the heavily agricultural southernmost part of the Ecological Landscape in Burnett County. Impoundments, all fairly small, have been created by constructing dams on the Tamarack and Black rivers, and several creeks. The St. Croix River is fed by springs, spring ponds, and seepages.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

Current Landcover

The present-day forests remain extensive and relatively unbroken, occupying about 68% of the landscape. Forests consist mainly of aspen, paper birch, sugar maple, basswood, spruce and fir. Minor amounts of white pine, red pine and red oak are also present. Older successional stages are currently rare, as almost all of this land is managed as "working forests". The large undisturbed peatland complexes consist of mosaics of black spruce-tamarack swamp, muskeg, open bog, poor fen, shrub swamp, and occasionally, white cedar swamp. The St. Croix River corridor includes forested bluffs and terraces, which support communities unlike those found in most other parts of the Ecological Landscape. These include mesic maple-basswood forest, dry-mesic forests of oak or oak mixed with pine, black ash-dominated hardwood swamps, and numerous forested seeps. Less extensive areas of marsh and sedge meadow also occur along the St. Croix. In most of this Ecological Landscape minor amounts of land are devoted to agricultural and residential uses, and most of these land uses are concentrated along State Highway 35. The major exception to this pattern is the area that wraps around the south end of the Northwest Sands which is a mix of agricultural lands and scattered oak or oak-pine woodlots.  Learn more from the chapter [PDF]

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Socioeconomic Conditions
(based on data from Douglas counties)


43,721, 0.8% of the state total

Population Density

32 persons/ sq. mile (Includes City of Superior which is not in the Ecological Landscape)

Per Capita Income


Important Economic Sectors

The largest employment sectors in 2007 were: Government (16.5%); tourism-related (15.0%), retail trade (11.8%) and health care and social services (10.3%). Forestry is the sector that has the largest impact on the natural resources in the Ecological Landscape.

Public Ownership

The most significant Federal ownership is the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, administered by the National Park Service; State-owned lands include portions of Governor Knowles State Forest, Pattison State Park, several State Natural Areas, and the Gandy Dancer State Trail; the Douglas County Forest occupies a major portion of this Ecological Landscape. A list of public land ownership (county, state, and federal) in this Ecological Landscape can be found in Appendix G at the end of this chapter.

Other Notable Ownerships

Minnesota's Nemadji State Forest and St. Croix State Park are immediately west of this Ecological Landscape.

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Considerations for Planning & Management

Avoid fragmentation of extensive forests, wetlands, and potential travel and dispersal corridors, e.g., via infrastructure development, or management activities; select a subset of forest interior species to monitor; identify opportunities to increase older forest, the abundance of conifers, and large forest patches; conduct aquatic surveys of headwaters streams; assess adequacy of protection for the aquatic and terrestrial resources of the St. Croix-Namekagon river system and identify opportunities to increase that protection if and where it's needed. The St. Croix corridor is used heavily by migratory birds, and may be important for other taxa as well. Ensure that DNR property managers have the background and inventory information they need to develop new property master plans. Communicate across jurisdictional borders to increase awareness of issues beyond individual property boundaries and enhance management compatibility where that would be advantageous.  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 Lowlands 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
Pickerel FrogLithobates palustris1
Mink FrogLithobates septentrionalis3

Ants, wasps, and beesScore
Yellow Bumble BeeBombus fervidus1
Frigid Bumble BeeBombus frigidus1
Confusing Bumble BeeBombus perplexus1
Yellowbanded Bumble BeeBombus terricola1
Sanderson's Bumble BeeBombus sandersoni1
Indiscriminate Cuckoo Bumble BeeBombus insularis3

Aquatic and terrestrial snailsScore
Cherrystone DropHendersonia occulta1
Appalachian PillarCochlicopa morseana1

Northern Barrens Tiger BeetleCicindela patruela patruela1
A Predaceous Diving BeetleHygrotus compar3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleHygrotus falli2
A Predaceous Diving BeetleAgabus leptapsis3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleAgabus discolor3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleHydrocolus persimilis3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleHydrocolus rubyae3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleHydroporus morio3
Robust Dubiraphian Riffle BeetleDubiraphia robusta3
A Riffle BeetleStenelmis antennalis3
A Riffle BeetleStenelmis quadrimaculata3
A Crawling Water BeetleHaliplus apostolicus3
A Minute Moss BeetleHydraena angulicollis1
A Predaceous Diving BeetleRhantus sericans3
A Water Scavenger BeetleAgabetes acuductus2
A Water Scavenger BeetleHelophorus latipenis3

American BitternBotaurus lentiginosus3
Least BitternIxobrychus exilis1
Northern GoshawkAccipiter gentilis1
Red-shouldered HawkButeo lineatus1
Spruce GrouseFalcipennis canadensis1
American WoodcockScolopax minor3
Black TernChlidonias niger2
Long-eared OwlAsio otus1
Common NighthawkChordeiles minor1
Eastern Whip-poor-willAntrostomus vociferus1
Black-backed WoodpeckerPicoides arcticus3
Olive-sided FlycatcherContopus cooperi3
Least FlycatcherEmpidonax minimus3
Purple MartinProgne subis1
Gray JayPerisoreus canadensis2
Boreal ChickadeePoecile hudsonicus2
Ruby-crowned KingletRegulus calendula1
Swainson's ThrushCatharus ustulatus1
Golden-winged WarblerVermivora chrysoptera3
Connecticut WarblerOporornis agilis3
Vesper SparrowPooecetes gramineus1
Grasshopper SparrowAmmodramus savannarum1
Le Conte's SparrowAmmodramus leconteii3
Nelson's SparrowAmmodramus nelsoni1
BobolinkDolichonyx oryzivorus2
Eastern MeadowlarkSturnella magna1
Western MeadowlarkSturnella neglecta1
Yellow-headed BlackbirdXanthocephalus xanthocephalus1
Rusty BlackbirdEuphagus carolinus2
Brewer's BlackbirdEuphagus cyanocephalus3
Evening GrosbeakCoccothraustes vespertinus1

Butterflies and mothsScore
Arctic FritillaryBoloria chariclea3
Midwestern Fen BuckmothHemileuca nevadensis ssp. 31
Semirelict Underwing MothCatocala semirelicta1
Doll's MeroloncheAcronicta dolli1
Liatris Borer MothPapaipema beeriana1

A Humpless Casemaker CaddisflyBrachycentrus lateralis3

Dragonflies and damselfliesScore
Pronghorn ClubtailGomphus graslinellus3
Extra-striped SnaketailOphiogomphus anomalus1
St. Croix SnaketailOphiogomphus susbehcha1
Sioux (Sand) SnaketailOphiogomphus smithi1
Mottled DarnerAeshna clepsydra1
Spatterdock DarnerRhionaeschna mutata1
Zigzag DarnerAeshna sitchensis1
Subarctic DarnerAeshna subarctica3
Lake EmeraldSomatochlora cingulata1
Plains EmeraldSomatochlora ensigera1
Forcipate EmeraldSomatochlora forcipata3
Incurvate EmeraldSomatochlora incurvata1
Alkali BluetEnallagma clausum1
Sphagnum SpriteNehalennia gracilis1

Lake SturgeonAcipenser fulvescens3
Pugnose ShinerNotropis anogenus1
River RedhorseMoxostoma carinatum3
Longear SunfishLepomis megalotis2
Gilt DarterPercina evides3

Grasshoppers and alliesScore
Blue-legged GrasshopperMelanoplus flavidus1
Grizzly Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus punctulatus1
Bruner's Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus bruneri2
Huckleberry Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus fasciatus2
Forest LocustMelanoplus islandicus1
A Spur-throat GrasshopperMelanoplus foedus1
Rocky Mountain Sprinkled LocustChloealtis abdominalis2
Crackling Forest GrasshopperTrimerotropis verruculata2
Seaside GrasshopperTrimerotropis maritima1
Spotted-winged GrasshopperOrphulella pelidna1
Delicate Meadow KatydidOrchelimum delicatum1
Speckled Rangeland GrasshopperArphia conspersa1
Clear-winged GrasshopperCamnula pellucida2

Water ShrewSorex palustris3
Little Brown BatMyotis lucifugus2
Northern Long-eared BatMyotis septentrionalis2
Silver-haired BatLasionycteris noctivagans2
Big Brown BatEptesicus fuscus2
Franklin's Ground SquirrelPoliocitellus franklinii1
Northern Flying SquirrelGlaucomys sabrinus2
Woodland Jumping MouseNapaeozapus insignis2
American MartenMartes americana2

American Sand Burrowing MayflyDolania americana2
A Spiny Crawler MayflyEurylophella aestiva1
A Flat-headed MayflyMacdunnoa persimplex2
A Flat-headed MayflyMaccaffertium pulchellum2
A Small Minnow MayflyPlauditus cestus1

Mussels and clamsScore
ElktoeAlasmidonta marginata2
SpectaclecaseCumberlandia monodonta2
Purple WartybackCyclonaias tuberculata3
Salamander MusselSimpsonaias ambigua1

Wood TurtleGlyptemys insculpta2
Blanding's TurtleEmydoidea blandingii1
GophersnakePituophis catenifer1

Community opportunities

Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan graphic

Natural community management opportunities

The Northwest Lowlands 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 Lowlands is one of the few Wisconsin Ecological Landscapes with large areas of remote habitat. The northern portion of the Northwest Lowlands features extensive forests undisturbed wetlands that are largely unbroken by farms, urban areas, or other developments and only a few major roads cross this portion of the landscape. Maintaining this large, contiguous area of undeveloped and lightly roaded forest is a major opportunity. In addition, there are opportunities to develop and maintain older forest, increase structural attributes associated with older forests and identify high conservation value forests on public lands. Areas with the potential to increase the diminished conifer component could also be identified; areas adjacent to existing stands of lowland conifers and muskeg might be especially good candidates for this.

There are several opportunities to work with partners across administrative (federal, state, county, private) boundaries. For example, the Northwest Lowlands is a small part of an ecoregion that extends well into Minnesota. Black Lake Bog, a two-state designated Natural Area on the MN-WI state line, provides opportunities to cooperate and coordinate management with Minnesota DNR for wide-ranging fauna such as gray wolf, moose, some birds and the habitat these species require. The National Park Service (NPS) has primary stewardship responsibilities for resources in and immediately adjacent to the St. Croix River. State, county and private entities have opportunities to continue to work with NPS on basic inventory, monitoring and management projects pertinent to this area. In general, there are good opportunities to provide and maintain corridors for species moving within the landscape, as well as to and from other landscapes.

The St. Croix River is an exceptional aquatic resource and supports outstanding aquatic diversity with numerous rare species. The forested corridor along the upper St. Croix also supports significant populations of rare birds. Maintaining an unbroken natural landscape and protecting stream corridors (e.g., the Spruce and Tamarack rivers) and the watersheds of streams that flow into the St. Croix River is important for maintaining the high-quality aquatic habitats, recreational opportunities and aesthetic values of this ecosystem. Several streams, such as the Black and Amnicon rivers, originate in this Ecological Landscape, flow north to Lake Superior and offer opportunities to maintain important aquatic and shoreline habitats and contribute to high water quality within the Northwest Lowlands and beyond.

The large, intact peatlands here are outstanding natural features and contain some of Wisconsin's best examples of peatland communities. Many sensitive species are dependent on these wetlands to provide suitable breeding and foraging habitat. Several of the large wetlands have been identified as high conservation priorities and merit the strongest protection possible. In addition, these wetlands are the headwaters areas of some of the Northwest Lowlands most important streams.

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


Northwest Lowlands 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 Lowlands Ecological Landscape. The Northwest Lowlands 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: January 23, 2012
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