State of the Beach/State Reports/WI/Beach Ecology

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Wisconsin Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access88
Water Quality74
Beach Erosion6-
Erosion Response-5
Beach Fill2-
Shoreline Structures6 3
Beach Ecology3-
Surfing Areas55
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


To the casual observer, beaches may simply appear as barren stretches of sand - beautiful, but largely devoid of life or ecological processes. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Sandy beaches not only provide habitat for numerous species of plants and animals, they also serve as breeding grounds for many species that are not residential to the beach. Additionally, beaches function as areas of high primary production. Seaweeds and other kinds of algae flourish in shallow, coastal waters, and beaches serve as repositories for these important inputs to the food chain. In this way, beaches support a rich web of life including worms, bivalves, and crustaceans. This community of species attracts predators such as seabirds, which depend on sandy beaches for their foraging activities. In short, sandy beaches are diverse and productive systems that serve as a critical link between marine and terrestrial environments.

Erosion of the beach, whether it is “natural” erosion or erosion exacerbated by interruptions to historical sand supply, can negatively impact beach ecology by removing habitat. Other threats to ecological systems at the beach include beach grooming and other beach maintenance activities. Even our attempts at beach restoration may disrupt the ecological health of the beach. Imported sand may smother natural habitat. The grain size and color of imported sand may influence the reproductive habits of species that utilize sandy beaches for these functions.

In the interest of promoting better monitoring of sandy beach systems, the Surfrider Foundation would like to see the implementation of a standardized methodology for assessing ecological health. We believe that in combination, the identified metrics such as those described below can function to provide a revealing picture of the status of beach systems. We believe that a standardized and systematic procedure for assessing ecological health is essential to meeting the goals of ecosystem-based management. And, we believe that the adoption of such a procedure will function to better inform decision makers, and help bridge the gap that continues to exist between science and policy. The Surfrider Foundation proposes that four different metrics be used to complete ecological health assessments of sandy beaches. These metrics include

  1. quality of habitat,
  2. status of ‘indicator’ species,
  3. maintenance of species richness, and
  4. management practices.

It is envisioned that beach systems would receive a grade (i.e., A through F), which describes the beach’s performance against each of these metrics. In instances where information is unavailable, beaches would be assigned an incomplete for that metric. Based on the beach’s overall performance against the four metrics, an “ecological health” score would be identified.


The Wisconsin Coastal Management Program (WCMP) — guided by the Wisconsin Coastal Management Council — leads efforts to improve the state's coasts. The program encourages and supports acquisition, planning, education, remediation and ecological restoration initiatives taken by many state and local organizations.

Public acquisition permanently protects coastal resources and provides an opportunity to reduce further habitat degradation. It increases access to unique coastal ecosystems and provides future opportunities for resource management and ecological restoration. The WCMP has provided grants to acquire several significant coastal properties.

The Lion's Den Gorge Nature Preserve in Ozaukee County provides access to nearly a mile of the Lake Michigan coast. The preserve now occupies one of the last undeveloped lakeshore parcels between Port Washington and the Illinois state line. The high bluffs and spectacular gorge leading to the lake provide important natural habitats that benefit southeastern Wisconsin. Ozaukee County will soon restore a wetland on the site using additional WCMP funds.

As part of the 2003 Great Lakes Restoration Project, $12 million federal grant funding was used to provide habitat improvements along Wisconsin's coasts. The Great Lakes Restoration Project report listed 19 projects in Wisconsin, a few of which included beaches.[1]

A resource assessment that the WCMP helped to fund was The Wisconsin Land Legacy Report: An inventory of places to meet Wisconsin’s future conservation and recreation needs. This study looked at the State's long-term land ownership needs to successfully protect natural resources and provide outdoor recreation opportunities. Using criteria developed through a public process, a list of areas and types of resources that are worthy of protection, and possibly public ownership, was developed. The Land Legacy Report identifies and describes these areas and their recreational opportunities, ranks their relative priority, and offers potential strategies for working with partners to accomplish protection needs. The Program has since used this document to develop the State’s Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Plan.

Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program

Congress established the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP) in 2002 to protect coastal and estuarine lands considered important for their ecological, conservation, recreational, historical or aesthetic values. The program provides state and local governments with matching funds to purchase significant coastal and estuarine lands, or conservation easements on such lands, from willing sellers. Lands or conservation easements acquired with CELCP funds are protected in perpetuity so that they may be enjoyed by future generations.

The CELCP guidelines outline the criteria and process for states to nominate land conservation projects to a national competitive process. The program is coordinated at the state level through each state’s CELCP lead within the state’s lead coastal management agency. According to the CELCP guidelines, a state must have an approved CELCP plan in order to compete for funding.

The WCMP has developed a draft CELCP Plan in collaboration with WDNR and with input from a wide range of program partners, to guide the prioritization of land conservation projects that include significant coastal and estuarine resources. Wisconsin’s draft Plan has been reviewed by NOAA and is currently being revised by the State.

As outlined in its draft CELCP Plan, Wisconsin’s priority coastal and estuarine conservation needs include: protection of ecologically diverse or high quality; protection of habitats supporting species listed as Endangered or Threatened, and other Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Wisconsin; protection of critical fish spawning habitat; and protection of critical bird habitat. These priorities, and the threats to these priorities within the State, were identified initially through public processes that resulted in several statewide and area plans, including the Wisconsin Land Legacy Report and the Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan: Wisconsin's Strategy for Wildlife Species of Greatest Conservation Need. Wisconsin’s CELCP Plan was developed to be complementary to and compatible with these, as well as other regional conservation efforts including The Nature Conservancy’s Conservation Blueprint for the Great Lakes/Bioregional Plans and the Regional Natural Areas and Critical Species Habitat Protection and Management Plan for Southeastern Wisconsin.

Beach grooming is only allowed above the “ordinary high water mark”, which establishes the boundary with the lakebed. The state owns the lakebed, so that grooming is a regulated activity on that portion of the beach. The lakebed is subject to extended periods of exposure during cyclical low-water periods on the Great Lakes.

Wisconsin DNR has developed a fact sheet on allowable beach maintenance activities.

Vehicle use is generally prohibited on public beaches and below the ordinary high water mark. Access across dunes is prohibited in some cases.

Some areas, such as Apostle Island National Lake Shore, may have restrictions on the use of motorized personal water craft. At many locations there is a "no wake" distance from shore.

Also click here for information on waterway protection


Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources has information on Wisconsin beaches including beach health and ecosystems and recreation. Information on common species, species in need of conservation, management options, and conservation actions are listed here. Species of greatest conservation need on Wisconsin's beaches and dunes include the:

This information on beach ecosystems and species is all part of the Wildlife Action Plan, the state's proactive approach to conserving sensitive species and habitats. The plan provides information on species and habitats in need of conservation, and gives guidance and ideas to local agencies and the public about how to protect these valuable natural resources.

Wisconsin has not yet identified ‘priority’ species to monitor as indicators of beach health.

There has been no monitoring of contaminants in beach sediments through NOAA’s National Status and Trends Program.

The Bureau of Endangered Resources administers the state’s Natural Heritage Inventory (NHI) and State Natural Areas (SNA) Programs. The NHI collects data and monitors occurrences of state and federal threatened and endangered species, as well as data and mapping of natural communities. The SNA program establishes and manages a system of 418 designated State Natural Areas, including approximately 15 that protect Great Lakes Dunes or Beach natural communities.

Additional information can be found here and here

There is also a Great Lakes Environmental Indicators Project (GLEI), administered by the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth, Minnesota. The goal of the GLEI project is to develop an integrated set of environmental indicators that can be used to assess the condition of the coastal margins of all five Great Lakes. Researchers are collecting data on habitat, amphibians, fish, invertebrates, vegetation, algae, and water quality in coastal wetlands and coastal margins of the U.S. Great Lakes.

Other Coastal Ecosystems

Critical coastal wetlands on the west shore of Green Bay protect water quality and provide bird and wildlife habitat. The fisheries of Green Bay depend on these wetlands and adjacent streams. As part of a larger effort to restore fisheries and water quality, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) acquired several Green Bay wetlands and streamside properties with WCMP grants. These acquisitions complement the intensive clean up and restoration of the Fox River and its estuary at Green Bay.[2]

Wisconsin's Needs Assessment and Strategy 2011-2015, while not specifically addressing beach ecology, does discuss coastal wetlands. The Needs Assessment document indicates that the following projects related to wetlands were initiated or completed during the previous assessment period:

  • Preparation of a Natural Heritage Inventory database for use by Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission for the update of the Regional Natural Areas Plan
  • Completion of an ecological integrity assessment for the West Shore of Green Bay
  • An update to Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning’ Commission’s Regional Natural Area and Critical Species Habitat Plan
  • Mapping and volunteer monitoring of ephemeral pond wetlands in Ozaukee, Racine, and Kenosha Counties
  • Strengthening the Citizen Monitoring Network for Ephemeral Ponds in Southeastern Wisconsin
  • An Inventory of Coastal County Wetland Protection Policies and Programs
  • St. Louis River Estuary Monitoring and Assessment
  • Lake Superior Coastal Watershed Assessment

Wisconsin performs wetland tracking and mapping activities to attempt to get a general picture of what is taking place in Wisconsin's wetlands.

Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve

The Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) (also see here) is located on the St. Louis River Freshwater Estuary in the City of Superior. The Lake Superior NERR is a research and education center of national importance focused on improving water quality, aquatic, wetland and coastal habitats, and quality of life for residents of Lake Superior and the Great Lakes. The Lake Superior NERR is part of the UW-Extension Wisconsin Freshwater Estuary Initiative. The WCMP provided funding to support the development of a Needs Assessment for Research, Management, and Education for Freshwater Estuaries. Please visit Wisconsin's Freshwater Estuary Intiative for more information.

The Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project (GLEAM) evaluates multiple stressors affecting the Great Lakes ecosystem. GLEAM merges spatial data layers representing all major categories of stressors to the Great Lakes, ranging from climate change and land-based pollution to invasive species, into a single map of cumulative stress. The synthesis of this information into a single map enhances our ability to manage and restore the Great Lakes ecosystem. The final map can be used to assess stressor impacts at locations with significant human benefits and to evaluate conservation and restoration opportunities.

NOAA's Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps provide a concise summary of coastal resources that are at risk if an oil spill occurs nearby. Examples of at-risk resources include biological resources (such as birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (such as marshes and tidal flats), and human-use resources (such as public beaches and parks).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal Services Center, in partnership with NatureServe and others are developing the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS), a standard ecological classification system that is universally applicable for coastal and marine systems and complementary to existing wetland and upland systems.

Contact Info

Mike Friis
Program Manager
Wisconsin Coastal Management Program
Department of Administration

Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve
Travis Olson


State of the Beach Report: Wisconsin
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