Shoreland Stewardship Series

Protecting Our Living Shores

Something amazing happens when land meets the water. The life force virtually blossoms into a level of diversity that is unparalleled on any parcel of upland. The variety within shorelands can include uplands, wetlands and water, and supports plants and animals from all three areas and many plants and animals only found in shorelands. In fact, 80% of endangered or threatened species found in Wisconsin spend all or part of their lives in shoreland areas. You don’t have to be an animal-lover or botanist to realize the significance of this biological panorama. By understanding how fish, waterfowl, and other wildlife depend on shorelands, we can begin to work to protect Wisconsin’s living shores.


Life In The Water

. . .I have become satisfied that the destruction of trees bordering on these streams and the changed conditions of the banks produced thereby, has resulted in the destruction of the natural harbours or hiding places of the trout . . .” — J. F. Van Cleef, American Fisheries Society, 1885.

As early as 1885, people were beginning to understand that fish and other aquatic life do not always adapt to changes on the land around their home. Replacing naturally vegetated shorelands with managed landscapes such as lawns, golf courses, and cropland can harm water quality when runoff carries soil, pesticides and fertilizers into lakes and rivers.

One of the easiest ways to detect a change in water quality is to watch for a change in water clarity. When you notice a change, so will the fish. Many species of fish rely on sight to find their food, and if the water is dirty, it becomes difficult for some fish to find food. As water quality decreases, insects and many other delicacies also begin to disappear. Among the first to go are caddis flies and mayflies, the favorite food of trout.

Rain water and snow melt can become nutrient-laden as they run across lawns and gardens, picking up excess fertilizers that have been applied. These nutrients can cause excessive aquatic weed growth that reduces the oxygen supply in lakes and rivers. This change favors populations of carp, catfish, suckers and other rough fish that are more tolerant of low oxygen conditions. Oxygen levels can be lowered further as rough fish remove the oxygen-producing plants found on the beds of lakes and rivers and as people clear shoreland vegetation that shades the water. Cooler water holds more oxygen and reduces stress on fish and other aquatic creatures. A few degrees difference in temperature can have a major effect on their survival. It’s important to keep even tiny brooks not big enough to hold fish cooler because the cool water, rich in oxygen, eventually reaches fish downstream.

Insects, the favorite food of many fish, are abundant in waters kept cool by waterfront vegetation. Leaves, twigs, and other organic matter from shoreland vegetation that fall into the water provide both lunch and breeding grounds for aquatic insects. These insects in turn feed fish and many others up the food chain. Besides providing insects with the food and cover they need, trees supply woody cover for lakes and rivers, such as fallen logs and branches. In Wisconsin lakes, over 15 different fish species at a time may inhabit a single downed tree. Birds and turtles can also be found using woody cover along the shore as resting places and basking spots. 

The rich diversity of emergent, floating, and submerged plants located just offshore provide important habitat for many aquatic animals. Some fish, like bluegills, graze directly on the leaves and stems of these aquatic plants, while other fish feed off the bugs and other critters found living on or beneath the plants. These shallow plant beds are important spawning areas for a number of fish including bass, bluegills, and northern pike. 

Besides helping fish, aquatic plants offer food, shelter, and nesting materials for waterfowl, shorebirds and aquatic mammals such as mink and muskrats. Beds of aquatic plants hide young ducklings from predators and provide protection from wave action. Loons also depend on these plants to build their mounded nests.

As our shorelands become more developed, these important aquatic plants and the habitat they provide are vanishing. In Minnesota, researchers found that developed shorelands had on average 66% less floating and emergent plants than undeveloped shorelands. Researchers in Wisconsin recorded even more dramatic losses of plant species for developed shorelands— 83% to 92% fewer species than undeveloped shorelands. As the aquatic plants disappear, the fish and other animals that rely on them may not be too far behind.

Life on Land

As roads and houses creep into shoreland areas, the behavior, reproduction, and survival of animals can be affected as human activities and structures degrade the surrounding wildlife habitat. Although researchers have estimated that animal habitat can be affected up to 1,500 feet away from human activities and structures, it may not be realistic to provide such a wide berth. But preserving and restoring shoreland vegetation can help limit the impact of these disturbances, which might include subtle changes in vegetation and animal travel patterns. In other words, how you manage your shoreline will determine how attractive it is to birds, frogs, turtles and other wildlife.

Every spring and fall, migrating songbirds and waterfowl use the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers as travel corridors, just as European settlers did when they migrated into the state. Migrating birds depend on shoreland corridors for food, cover and nesting areas. Many studies have confirmed that the key to preserving the diversity and abundance of birds is to preserve plant diversity. Most woodland birds, for instance, require several layers of vegetation, from groundcovers to shrubs to trees. Grassland and wetland birds need a diversity of native grasses, wildflowers and shrubs. Simply put, more plants mean more foraging and nesting sites, thus more birds.

The structure of the habitat is important, too. For example, some birds prefer trees with a certain diameter (24 to 30 inches at breast height for wood ducks) for nesting, while birds such as kingfishers use shrub cover along the water to conceal their brood. Cavity trees are used by many kinds of birds for nesting, including wood ducks, hooded mergansers, and owls. Osprey, kingfishers, flycatchers and other birds can often be found perching in dead trees, or snags, along the water watching for food. Bats roost under the loose bark of dying trees when they are not out catching insects. A single bat can eat as many as 1,200 bugs during an evening - among them many mosquitoes.

Amphibians and reptiles such as salamanders, frogs, and turtles are common along natural shorelands. They often require water or damp areas to reproduce, and may move into upland areas for portions of the year. Salamanders and frogs need unbroken shoreland corridors because they are often unable to safely cross even small areas of unsuitable habitat, such as roads and parking lots. To a salamander, whose life revolves around water, a cement curb or retaining wall might as well be the Great Wall of China.

Since so many different types of animals rely on shorelands, it is difficult to select a single width that can preserve shoreland habitat for all wildlife. Recommendations vary depending on the animal and its
needs. Some animals are more sensitive to human activities, and as a result, require more room. General recommendations to preserve wildlife habitat vary from 30 feet to over 300 feet wide, with some recommendations exceeding 1,500 feet.

Muskrats do fine with approximately 30 feet of natural shorelands but kingfishers, turtles and frogs prefer 100 feet to over 300 feet. Some animals, such as herons, scarlet tanagers and the American redstart may need over 400 feet to 600 feet of natural shorelands to successfully reproduce and grow.

It is often unrealistic to have widths of 600 feet or more of shorelands preserved for wildlife. However, narrower corridors of shorelands surrounding our lakes and rivers will still provide wildlife habitat for some animals. When shoreland development completely rings a lake or follows the twists and turns of the river, it is important to restore wildlife travel corridors to and from the water. These travel corridors can provide access to larger tracts of land when the habitat needs of some animals cannot be met at the water’s edge.

Shoreland Plants that Please

To enhance the wildlife habitat along a shoreland or anywhere, restore a diverse mix of native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees. There are many plants to choose from but several of the easiest to find at local nurseries and greenhouses are listed below. Even if you are unable to restore your shoreland all at once, finding places for these and other native plants is a good starting point to help wildlife.



Switch Grass - Panicum virgatum
Switch grass has delicate, airy seedheads that follow any breeze. It can reach a height of 3 to 6 feet depending on the soil moisture available. In the fall, the grass turns a burnished gold, providing color throughout the winter. It prefers full sun and can handle dry to moist soil conditions. In their caterpillar stage, many butterflies, such as the tawny-edged skipper and the Northern pearly eye, rely on switch grass and other grasses for food. Switch grass also provides important nesting habitat for many grassland birds.

Blue Joint Grass - Calamagrostis canadensis
Blue joint grass grows in clumps with finely-textured leaves. It can grow 2 to 4 feet tall, and prefers full sun. It is often found in wet areas, but can tolerate occasional dry conditions. Blue joint grass is a cool season grass that greens up earlier in the spring than most grasses. It is sometimes confused with reed canary grass, an invasive exotic plant, which should never be planted in shorelands.

Tussock Sedge - Carex stricta
Tussock sedge is commonly found in sedge meadows with its slender arching leaves. It grows 2 to 3 feet tall and prefers full sun with moist soils. It favors areas with standing water, but will withstand occasionally drying conditions. Many different species of sedges capture nutrients from runoff to feed their growth, helping to protect water quality.


Columbine - Aquilegia canadensis
Columbine has brilliant red and yellow flowers, providing a splash of color in early summer and drawing hummingbirds like a magnet. Its flower stalks can reach 1 to 3 feet tall, preferring medium to dry soils. Columbine is common along woodland edges and in forests.

New England Aster - Aster novae-angliae
New England aster provides rich magenta to deep purple blossoms every fall, growing 1 to 4 feet tall. It prefers full sun or partial shade, and will grow in medium to wet soils. In their caterpillar stage and as adults, butterflies use asters for food. The seeds also provide food for many songbirds in the fall and winter.

Marsh Milkweed - Asclepias incarnata
Marsh milkweed has pink to magenta flowers and grows 1 to 4 feet tall. It prefers full sun and wet soils, tolerating an occasional flooding. Marsh milkweed is used by the monarch butterfly in all its life stages. Birds also use milkweeds when building their nests. Song sparrows line their nests with the fuzzy white “floss” from seed pods and Baltimore orioles use it in the construction of their hanging nests.


Red Osier Dogwood

Red Osier Dogwood - Cornus stolonifera
Red osier dogwood, a native deciduous shrub, provides excellent shoreland protection. It favors wet soils and can grow in sun or partial shade. The plant’s striking red stems are especially attractive in winter against the snow. Grouse, turkey, thrushes, bluebirds, and more favor its distinctive white fruits.

Highbush Cranberry - Viburnum opulus L. subsp. trilobum
Highbush cranberry has showy white flowers that are followed by scarlet fruits that persist into winter, offering food to wildlife. Its leaves turn a deep red to purple in the fall. This very hardy deciduous shrub tolerates wet conditions, and grows in sun to part shade. Grouse, pheasant, and small birds use the plant for cover, and bluebirds, cedar waxwings, cardinals, and others eat the fruit. Stay away from the potentially invasive improved or horticultural varieties of the highbush cranberry.


Swamp White Oak—Quercus bicolor
The swamp white oak can reach heights of 60 to 70 feet. It is common in wet soils along streams and swamps, and is tolerant of occasional flooding. Its acorns provide an important food source for many animals through the winter, including turkey and white-tailed deer.

Tamarack—Larix laricina
Tamarack is a deciduous conifer, which means it produces new needles every spring. In the fall the needles turn a bright golden color before the tree sheds them. Tamarack can grow to heights of 90 feet. It prefers sunny sites and does not tolerate shade. Tamarack is common in the wet, peaty soils of bogs and swamps, but can also be found in drier upland sites. Sharp-tail grouse, pine siskin and other birds will eat tamarack seeds from its cones. Snowshoe hares will also eat the bark and branches of tamarack.

Additional Resources
Landscaping for Wildlife and Lakescaping for Wildlife and Water Quality—Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 1-800-657-3757
Life on the Edge: Owning Waterfront Property—(17-minute video) Wisconsin Lakes Partnership, (715) 346-2116
Shoreland Restoration: A Growing Solution—(GWQ032, 15-minute video) UW-Extension Publications, 608-262-3346 or 1-877-947-7827 (toll free)
The Water’s Edge: Helping fish and wildlife on your waterfront property (FH-428-00)—Available from local DNR service centers
Wisconsin Native Plant Sources: Seeds and plants for prairies, woodlands, wetlands, and shorelands—UW-Extension Basin Educator for Natural Resources, Milwaukee & Sheboygan River Basins, (414) 290-2434

Shoreland Stewardship Series:
This is the third fact sheet in the shoreland stewardship series. The entire series is available from the county UW-Extension offices, Extension Publications (1-877-947-7827), or Wisconsin DNR service centers. It is also available online at A publication of University of Wisconsin-Extension, Wisconsin Lakes Partnership, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Wisconsin Association of Lakes, and The River Alliance of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources acknowledges the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region V (through Section 319 of the Water Quality Act) for their involvement in the partial funding of this publication.

©2003 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Text developed by Carmen Wagner, John Haack, and Robert Korth. Photos courtesy of Jeffery Baylis, Robert Korth, J. Nehls, Robert Queen, Jeff Strobel, Carmen Wagner, and DNR file photos. Editing and design by the Environmental Resources Center, UW-Extension.

DNR PUB-WT-764 2003