Wisconsin Conservation Summary

From the lake-filled northwoods to the unglaciated southwest, from the shores of Green Bay and Lake Michigan to the St. Croix River valley, Wisconsin has been greatly affected by the most recent Ice Age. Where glaciers roamed, the land was reshaped by ice and water. Glacial lakes created large sandy areas that support an almost bewildering complex of dry forests and savannas, a variety of sedge-dominated wetlands, and isolated, distinctive sandstone buttes. Where the glaciers missed, the well-known Driftless Area, the land is deeply cut by old streams. There are about 80 different natural communities in the state, including the remnant prairies and savannas of southern and western Wisconsin, the hardwood forests of northern Wisconsin, and the maze of wetlands, lakes and streams throughout the state.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

Three major biomes converge in Wisconsin: the northern forests with their mix of hardwoods and conifers, the prairies, and the southern hardwood forests. With the variability in landforms and climate, the state supports over 2,000 native vascular plants, about 680 vertebrate animals, and as many as 65,000 invertebrates. With the recent glacial history of the state, it’s perhaps not surprising that Wisconsin does not support a great number of endemic species, yet the state does provide significant habitat for many rare species. Wisconsin has the largest populations in the world of Karner blue butterflies, a species that is dependent on the wild lupine that grows in barrens, dry savannas, and dry prairies. Recently, Kirtland’s warblers, a species that is listed as endangered by the federal government, has been documented breeding in young jack pine forests in Wisconsin. A rare leafhopper, Attenuipyga vanduzee, has been documented only six times since 1994, and four of those sightings have been in remnant prairies in Wisconsin.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

About 16 percent of all land in Wisconsin is publically owned and distributed between national forests, national parks, and local and state governments, including county forests. Wisconsin has the first state-sponsored natural area protection program in the country, which to date has protected nearly 600 areas that encompass 323,000 acres. While many of the natural areas are on state property, the program relies on its partners to protect sites that have high ecological, biological or geological value. These partners include the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, The Nature Conservancy, Gathering Waters and numerous local land trusts, county forests and private individuals. For example, for many years the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has worked with The Nature Conservancy and University of Wisconsin-Parkside to acquire and manage Chiwaukee Prairie, one of the largest prairie complexes in the state and the most intact coastal wetland in southeastern Wisconsin. The prairie contains an exceptional mosaic of plant and animal communities.


While there have been many conservation accomplishments in the state, there remain many challenges. The population of the state continues to grow, as does the reach of urbanization, which leads to increased habitat fragmentation and loss. Wisconsin also faces an onslaught of invasive species from other regions and countries. These non-native plants, animals and pathogens displace native species, disrupt ecosystems, and harm recreational activities. They also damage commercial, agricultural and aquacultural resources. Compounding the problem, current state and federal laws on invasive species are inconsistent between species groups. Further, fire suppression policies have resulted in a greatly altered fire regime that threatens biodiversity. Many of Wisconsin’s natural communities were dependent on fire from lightning strikes and those deliberately set by Native Americans. While prescribed burns are widely used in appropriate habitats, their use may be restricted.

Wisconsin’s Future

In face of these and other challenges, Wisconsin citizens continue to be dedicated to conservation. In a recent legislative session, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program was renewed to preserve valuable natural areas and wildlife habitat, protect water quality and fisheries, and expand opportunities for outdoor recreation. The conservation and recreation goals of the Program are achieved through the acquisition of land and easements, development of recreational facilities, and restoration of wildlife habitat. Wisconsin is also home to more than 50 land trusts that collectively protect and manage over 200,000 acres with significant ecological, scenic, recreational, agricultural, and historic value. The continuing collaboration of public and private entities and individuals will help conserve Wisconsin’s natural world.

Contribute to LandScope

Want to join, work with us or simply find out more? Learn how you can get involved.


Copyright © 2024 NatureServe. All Rights Reserved.