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Red River Breaks - St. Louis River Marshes

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Counties: Douglas


Red River Breaks - St. Louis River Marshes. Aerial view of St. Louis River (flowing left to right); Wisconsin and mouth of Red River on near bank, 15 Oct. 1996. Photograph, E.J. Epstein.

Site Description

Significant wetlands lie within the upper St. Louis River Estuary; the neighboring Wisconsin shoreline is almost entirely undeveloped and includes a large block of rough, forested, roadless terrain. The area is a mixture of state and private ownership. The Minnesota side of the St. Louis River also harbors valuable wetlands, including remnant patches of wire-leaved sedge fen at the Oliver Bridge and downstream at Grassy Point.

St. Louis River Marshes

Upper portions of the St. Louis River Estuary from Fond du Lac downstream to Oliver feature extensive emergent marshes. These are typically located inside the main channel's meanders, but also occur in protected, shallow bays along the upland shore. Important emergent aquatics include species typical of other Lake Superior stands (arrowheads, bulrushes, bur-reed, lake sedge, and cattails). Wild rice and sweet flag are locally common. Deeper waters of the marsh complexes support submergent and floating-leaved macrophytes.

The patches of marsh associated with the main channel are often bordered by a natural levee adjoining the flowing river. Where well-developed, the levees are vegetated with tall wetland shrubs and lowland hardwoods, especially speckled alder, red-osier dogwood, meadowsweet, willows, black and green ash, and box elder.

Red River Breaks

This site borders the Red River and associated Wisconsin tributaries of the lower St. Louis River and contains an extensive block of undeveloped and unroaded forest dominated by pole-size trembling aspen. The canopy is sparse, with a dense understory of speckled alder in many stands. Conifers, which were formerly dominant here, occur as scattered individuals or in small stands, and white spruce, white pine, and white cedar are the most important species. In poorly drained "flats," on the level ridges between ravines, there are patches of black ash-dominated hardwood swamp and thickets of speckled alder and other tall wetland shrubs. Areas of standing water are infrequent but, where present, support small emergent marshes and broad-leaved sedge meadows.

The lower slopes of the steep-sided ravines are often springy, sometimes supporting remnant stands of white cedar and unusual herbs. Several springs were flowing with brightly-colored orange water, the result of the presence of iron bacteria. Some of the small terraces a few meters above the streams in the ravine bottoms contain mature stands of large white spruce, black ash, and balsam poplar. Along the St. Louis River channel there are stands of emergent macrophytes, shrub swamp, and small patches of black ash swamp.

At least 10 species of rare plants have been documented on the site. The area supports a representative diversity of the region's birds, including large populations of many neotropical migrants (e.g. wood warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and thrushes).

Additional Comments

The St. Louis River Marshes/Red River Breaks are an integral part of one of the largest freshwater estuaries on the western Great Lakes, and the lower St. Louis River offers unique large scale protection and restoration opportunities in an urban setting. It is considered a high priority owing to its large size, recent state acquisition of lands within the area, and its significance to water quality in the estuary.

Last revised: Wed, 20 Jun 2012 17:21:15 CDT