Wet-mesic Prairie

habitat photo
Photo 1 | Photo 2 | Photo 3 | Photo 4
Wet-mesic Prairie with abundant prairie dock along Crawfish River, Jefferson County. Photo by Eric Epstein.

Habitat Description

Habitat Crosswalk

Cowardin: Palustrine; emergent wetland, persistent (Cowardin et al. 1979).
Sample and Mossman: Wet-mesic or Wet Prairie (Sample and Mossman 1997).
Shaw and Fredine: Type 1: Seasonally flooded basin or flat; Type 2: Inland fresh meadow (Shaw and Fredine 1971).
Vegetation of Wisconsin: Lowland prairie (Curtis 1971).
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Natural Communities: Wet-mesic Prairie (WDNR 2005).
Wisconsin Wetland Inventory: Emergent/wet meadow, broad- and narrow-leaved persistent (WDNR 1992).


Wet-mesic Prairie occurs on occasionally inundated stream and river floodplains, lake margins, and isolated moist depressions in southern Wisconsin. It is a medium to tall grass-dominated system that contains less than 10% woody cover. Wet-mesic Prairie typically has fewer wetland plants than Wet Prairie, but this varies depending on duration of seasonal inundation (Kost et al. 2007). Loam or silt loam soils support a dense growth of bluejoint grass, prairie cord grass, big blue-stem, and Canada wild-rye. Characteristic forbs include yellow coneflower, tall meadow-rue, mountain mint, common milkweed, wild strawberry, wild bergamot, prairie blazing-star, New England aster, Eastern shooting-star, prairie dock, water-hemlock, saw-tooth sunflower, golden alexanders, and showy tick-trefoil (Hoffman and Sample 1988, Henderson 1995, WDNR 2005).

Historical and Present-day Context and Distribution

Approximately 170,000 hectares of wet-mesic prairie occurred in Wisconsin prior to European settlement, primarily south of the tension zone (Curtis 1959 cited in Hoffman and Sample 1988). This grassland type was commonly associated with large wetland complexes containing wet prairie, southern sedge meadow, calcareous fen, and emergent marsh communities (Hoffman and Sample 1988). Agriculture, development, and fire suppression destroyed 99% of the wet-mesic prairies and degraded most of the 1,200 hectares remaining. Today, most wet-mesic prairies persist as small (<4 ha), highly fragmented remnants in the following ecological landscapes: Southern Lake Michigan Coastal, Central Sand Hills, and Southeast Glacial Plain. Avoca Prairie and Savanna State Natural Area in Iowa County (Western Coulee and Ridges Ecological Landscape) provides an excellent example of this prairie type (Curtis 1971, Hoffman and Sample 1988, WDNR 2005).

Natural Disturbances and Threats

Presettlement wet-mesic prairie was a disturbance-prone, disturbance-dependent system. Periodic fires reduced woody encroachment and helped sustain native prairie vegetation at some sites. Fires created openings for seedling establishment and replenished nutrients to the soil that were essential for plant growth, flowering, and seed set (Kost et al. 2007). High water also may have played an important role in setting back encroaching shrubs and trees. Elk and white-tailed deer may have impacted vegetation at a local level, but it is unclear whether herbivory had significant landscape effects in Wisconsin (TNC 2001). Different disturbance regimes (i.e., disturbance type, scale, frequency, severity, and timing) across the landscape resulted in a complex range of successional stages and a diverse biological community. As native grassland ecosystems were converted to cropland and pasture, however, the landscape mosaic was simplified and the once continuous grassland landscape was fragmented by fields, woodlots, roads, ditches, and other human developments (Steinauer and Collins 1996). These ownership patterns also increased the isolation of the ever-decreasing remnants.

Increased development has severely fragmented native grassland habitats and suppressed, eliminated, or altered the ecological processes necessary to maintain prairie diversity. Approximately 56% of Wisconsin’s native prairie remnants occur on public properties that can be managed for prairie conservation. However, some management tools such as prescribed fire are constrained even on public lands because of public perception and surrounding land use. Without active management, aggressive species such as glossy buckthorn, common reed, reed canary grass, and purple loosestrife invade and simplify the biological community. Most wet-mesic prairie remnants are now too scarce, small, and isolated for locally extirpated plant species to recolonize from adjoining or nearby lands. Certain native woody plants also can be problematic, including red osier dogwood, many willows, and American elm saplings. Excessive woody cover adversely impacts grassland bird communities by increasing negative edge effects and providing movement corridors for predators. Hydrological modifications (e.g., ditches, dikes, tiles) and prolonged or intensive grazing also can degrade wet-mesic prairie communities by facilitating invasive plant establishment and thereby reducing native plant diversity (Curtis 1971, Hoffman and Sample 1988, Sample and Mossman 1997, WDNR 2005).

Related WBCI Habitats: Wet Prairie, Dry-mesic Prairie.

Overall Importance of Habitat for Birds

Wet-mesic Prairie supports many bird species also common to Wet Prairie, including Common Yellowthroat, Red-winged Blackbird, and Bobolink. Although the drier conditions of wet-mesic prairie are less suitable than wet prairie for some wetland- or tallgrass-associated species (including Henslow’s Sparrow and Sedge Wren), they favor grassland species such as Savannah Sparrow as well as Vesper Sparrow on recently burned sites. As shrub cover increases, Bell’s Vireo, Willow Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Field Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Yellow Warbler, American Goldfinch, and other species associated with woody cover may be present. Several grassland-obligate species formerly common in wet-mesic prairies are now largely extirpated due to widespread habitat destruction and fragmentation. In particular, area-sensitive species such as Northern Harrier, Upland Sandpiper, and Greater Prairie-Chicken cannot sustain viable populations on small, isolated wet-mesic prairie remnants unless they are embedded in landscapes with a large amount of grassland and open habitats (Hoffman and Sample 1988, WDNR 2005).

Priority Birds

Species Status Habitat and/or Special Habitat Features
Mallard b If appropriate open water for breeding pairs and broods is available nearby.
Blue-winged Teal b If appropriate open water for breeding pairs and broods is available nearby.
Greater Prairie-Chicken b, w Formerly common nesting species but largely extirpated from this type.
Northern Harrier b, m Formerly common nesting species but largely extirpated from this type.
American Golden Plover m Occasionally occurs in burned areas.
Upland Sandpiper b, m Occurs in prairies embedded in high-grass landscapes with some drier ridges and hummocks.
Marbled Godwit m Occasionally occurs in burned areas.
Barn Owl f Very rare resident in southern and central Wisconsin.
Short-eared Owl b, m, w Formerly common nesting species but largely extirpated from this type.
Willow Flycatcher b, m Requires a shrub component.
Bell’s Vireo b, m Requires a shrub component.
Common Yellowthroat B, M Prefers tall, dense herbaceous cover and/or a shrub component.
Clay-colored Sparrow b, m Requires a shrub component.
Field Sparrow b, m Requires a shrub component.
Vesper Sparrow b, m Prefers areas with short, sparse vegetation and some bare ground, e.g., recently burned areas.
Henslow’s Sparrow b, m Rare; prefers areas with tall, dense herbaceous cover that is grass-dominated with a substantial component of residual vegetation.
Le Conte’s Sparrow b, m  
Swamp Sparrow b, m Prefers tall, dense herbaceous cover, especially patches of cat-tail and other coarse emergents.
Dickcissel b, m Prefers sites with a thick-stemmed forb component.
Eastern Meadowlark b, m  
Bobolink B, M  


Management Recommendations

Landscape-level Recommendations

  1. Support state and federal programs that manage, enhance, or restore grassland habitats on private lands. Develop cooperative agreements with private landowners to prevent habitat fragmentation and conversion in areas critical for grassland bird conservation.
  2. Develop a digital layer of high-grassland landscapes to focus restoration and conservation efforts. Discourage extensive tree planting within these landscapes to improve the long-term viability of obligate grassland birds.
  3. Partner with the agricultural community to ensure rural working landscapes with high amounts of open space suitable for birds and other wildlife.
  4. Determine what scale of landscape management is possible in an area: medium (400-2,000 hectares) or large (>4,000 hectares). Consider developing a grassland Bird Conservation Area in appropriate landscapes (see Fitzgerald and Pashley 2000).

Site-level Recommendations

  1. Focus management and protection priorities on wet-mesic prairie remnants that are large, diverse, support rare species, contain minimal woody cover, and are embedded in landscapes with large amounts of grassland and open habitats (McCoy 2000, DeJong 2001, Bakker et al. 2002).
  2. Develop a digital data layer of wet-mesic prairie remnants to better prioritize acquisitions and conservation easements and maximize benefits to grassland birds (Kost et al. 2007).
  3. Restore the upland grassland community bordering a wet-mesic prairie site to restrict nutrient and sediment input from surrounding development, improve hydrology, and increase habitat connectivity (Kost et al. 2007).
  4. Restorations aimed at area-sensitive species such as Northern Harrier, Upland Sandpiper, and Henslow’s Sparrow should be at least 50 ha and preferably more than 100 ha in area if the sites are isolated. Sites embedded in high-grassland landscapes can be smaller than this and still provide valuable habitat to these species (Hoffman and Sample 1988, Herkert et al. 1993, Renfrew and Ribic 2008).
  5. Hydrologic restoration will be needed at sites that have been ditched, tiled, or impounded.
  6. Remove linear woody features such as hedgerows and woody fencelines as well as adjacent woodlots to improve site suitability for grassland birds. Low density, scattered shrubs are acceptable and even required by some grassland birds such as Willow Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, and Brown Thrasher (Sample et al. 2003, WDNR 2005, Kost et al. 2007).
  7. Use prescribed fire in conjunction with cutting and/or herbicides to prevent excessive woody encroachment. Burns scheduled outside the breeding season - either early spring (March-April) or fall (September-November) – are generally best for birds (Sample and Mossman 1997).
  8. Before using prescribed burning for grassland management, determine habitat objectives:
    • If managing for grassland birds with no residual vegetation or woody cover requirement, conduct short (1-2 years) burn rotations.
    • If managing for grassland birds that require a litter or shrub component, conduct longer rotations (>5 years).
    • For large sites, consider only burning portions of the property in a given year to diversify both the vegetation structure and bird community.
    • For remnant prairie sites with significant invasion of invasive cool-season grasses, burn as late as possible in the spring to set back the invasives.
  9. Manage small wet-mesic prairie sites for specific subsets of grassland birds rather than maximum species diversity (Vickery et al. 1999).
  10. Develop property-specific plans to control invasive species on prairies, such as common reed, reed canary grass, and glossy buckthorn.
  11. Before grazing prairie grasslands, consider site characteristics and management objectives:
    • If managing a prairie remnant with high native plant diversity, avoid grazing to protect rare plant communities and prevent their conversion to non-native grasses.
    • If managing a remnant prairie site degraded by a significant coverage of invasive shrubs and small trees, consider short-term grazing following mowing to suppress the woody growth. Consult a specialist to develop a grazing plan that benefits wildlife.

Ecological Opportunities

Ecological Landscape Opportunity Management Recommendations
Central Sand Hills Major All
Southeast Glacial Plains Major All
Southern Lake Michigan Coastal Major 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15
Southwest Savanna Important 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15
Western Coulees and Ridges Important 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15
Central Sand Plains Present 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15

Research Needs

  1. Identify source and sink grassland habitats and determine habitat, land-use, and landscape features that contribute to differences in bird productivity (Koford and Best 1996, DeJong 2001, Guzy 2005).
  2. Investigate area and landscape requirements for healthy, viable grassland bird populations in addition to studies of species-specific area sensitivities (Sample and Mossman 1997).
  3. Determine the most beneficial arrangement of habitat types within landscapes for grassland birds. Evaluate productivity as well as daily and seasonal habitat use, including the post-fledging period (Guzy 2005)
  4. Determine the maximum threshold for woody vegetation for nesting grassland birds (Guzy 2005).
  5. Investigate adverse impacts of toxic chemicals to grassland birds nesting in or adjacent to agricultural fields (Vickery et al. 1999).
  6. Monitor wet-mesic prairie restoration and enhancement activities to assess their wildlife value and adaptively refine management activities.
  7. Anticipate and monitor impacts of corn and soybean biofuel production to grassland habitats. 


Key Sites

Key Partners

Funding Sources

Information Sources


Contact Information

Kreitinger, K., Y. Steele and A. Paulios, editors. 2013.
The Wisconsin All-bird Conservation Plan, Version 2.0. Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Madison, WI.

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