What are pine-oak barrens?

Many old-timers in the area refer to the entire sandy region found in the area as “the barrens” or “the pine barrens.” They often refer to the very young habitat found after a fire as “brush prairie.” Perhaps more frequently, people refer only to the recently burned areas as barrens.

From a habitat standpoint, “Barrens” are typically a dry, sandy soil, open landscape dominated by grasses, forbs, low shrubs and scattered trees. Often referred to as barrens, brush prairie or shrubland, this rare community of global significance contains a rich diversity of plants and animals. These open landscapes are also very scenic, breaking up vast areas of northern forest in Wisconsin.

The diverse flora and wildlife provide many recreational opportunities, including birding, hunting, blueberry picking, photography, hiking and spring viewing of the sharp-tailed grouse mating ritual on their ‘dancing’ grounds.   Further information and beautiful photos can be found in this brochure:  Northwest Wisconsin Barrens: A Landscape of Global Significance.

Prior to the European settlement pine barrens covered 7% of the land, or 2.3 million acres. Oak barrens covered 5%, or 1.8 million acres. As of 1995, approximately 10,000 acres of good quality pine and oak barrens remained at 65 Wisconsin sites. To date, the total estimate of remaining pine and oak barrens is 50,000 acres, but much of it is degraded. Most remaining pine and oak barrens exist as small, isolated fragments on approximately a dozen state- or federally-managed areas. These fragments may indicate that a larger area of the surrounding landscape has the potential to return to a barrens stage. (Info taken from Wisconsin Ecological Landscapes Handbook).  Wisconsin DNR and partnering agencies are working to keep a “rolling mosaic” or corridor of barrens in place for the plant and animal species adapted to this habitat.  More information on this can be found in the DNR Northwest Sands Habitat Corridor Plan.

Fire Shapes the Barrens

Carefully controlled fires are used as a management tool to maintain barrens plant species.  The DNR website has more information on prescribed fire and its benefits for wildlife habitat.  The Wildlife Area is divided in Burn Units and different units are burned each spring (weather permitting).  The dates on the map are not current (as more areas have been burned since the map was produced) but the map is included as an example of the rotation schedule.

Here’s some historical perspective on how fire has maintained barrens habitat, both naturally and human-managed.

This sandy region of northwest Wisconsin burned quite frequently prior to the arrival of settlers from Europe. Wildfires caused by lightning strikes burned across the droughty landscape until heavy rains or natural features such as lakes, rivers or heavier, wetter soils put out the flames. Native Americans burned the area frequently for a variety of reasons. Travel was easier and safer across recently burned land. Villages were safe from wildfire when surrounded by burned over land. Game animals were attracted to the lush vegetation that grew after a fire, and biting insects were reduced.

Early settlers frequently set fires to clear land for farming. Prior to this, Native Americans burned the region to attract game animals, stimulate blueberry production, control biting insects, and ease cross country travel. These frequent fires kept much of the landscape in a mixture of brush, prairie plants, and very short oak or pine.

Hundreds of years of repeated fires favored a landscape composed of small trees, brush, and numerous species of prairie plants. Wildlife that adapted to this type of landscape thrived. Species such as upland sandpipers and sharp-tailed grouse were abundant. The original vegetation of Wisconsin at the time of European settlement was estimated to include approximately four to six million acres of barrens habitat. With settlement and effective fire control techniques, this type of habitat has been reduced to about 50,000 acres.

Wildlife managers use prescribed fire and mowing to maintain this increasingly rare habitat. Wildlife and plant species that were once abundant in Wisconsin are now confined to these isolated habitats where fire is used to manage them. For example, sharp-tailed grouse were so abundant prior to effective control of wildfires that early accounts of hunting by settlers frequently mention shooting enough sharp-tailed grouse in a day to fill their horse drawn wagons. Today, the entire population of sharp-tails in Wisconsin would probably not fill such a wagon. 

More Information

Another useful DNR document with further information on prescribed fire can be downloaded here.

NBWA Burn Unit Map

Map showing Burn Units and dates of last prescribed fire

Prescribed Fire Photo Gallery (click to view)

Prescribed Fire Video (click to view)