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Protecting wetlands

Protecting and preserving Wisconsin’s remaining wetlands is critical for the state’s economy, environment and way of life. Nearly half of Wisconsin’s wetlands present in the 1800s have been destroyed and the results are evident with increased flooding and poor water quality in several lakes, rivers, and streams.

Why wetlands matter

Wetlands play a critical role in maintaining the overall health and functioning of lakes, rivers, prairies and forests because they’re located among these landscapes. They also provide critical habitat for Wisconsin plants, fish and wildlife, clean water, protection from floods, recreation, and natural scenic beauty.

  • Wetlands reduce flooding peaks by as much as 60% and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that an acre of wetlands can store one to 1.5 million gallons of floodwaters3.
  • Polluted runoff from cities, farms and construction sites is filtered by wetlands before entering lakes and rivers. Clean lakes and rivers are the backbone of Wisconsin’s tourism industry, which generated $12 billion in 2009 and supported more than 286,000 jobs.
  • The filtering capability of wetlands cuts the cost of treating drinking water. Some wetlands can remove a quantity of pollutants from the watershed equivalent to that removed from a $5 million treatment plant6.
  • Nearly 40% of Wisconsin’s 370 species of birds live in or use wetlands and many important game birds, mammals, fish, amphibians and reptiles are associated with wetlands, among them waterfowl, white-tailed deer, ring-necked pheasants, northern pike and walleye4. In Wisconsin, bird–watchers and wildlife watchers spend $271 million annually waiting for a glimpse of their favorites5.
  • One–third of the plants and animals on Wisconsin’s state endangered and threatened list depend on wetlands7

Wetland protection laws

All wetlands in Wisconsin are protected under state law and most are under the federal Clean Water Act, and in some places, by local regulations or ordinances as well. Landowners and developers are required to avoid wetlands with their projects whenever possible; if the wetlands can’t be avoided, they must apply for permits and receive approval to proceed with proposed wetland impacts.

To learn more please visit wetland permits.


It is important to permanently protect wetlands to maximize benefits to people and a healthy environment. Priority wetlands for protection include unique, high quality and rare types, as well as wetlands that provide critical functions like flood storage, water quality and wildlife habitat. Through the acquisition of land, easements, covenants or deed restrictions, landowners, conservation organizations and government agencies can ensure these wetland systems are permanently protected for future generations.

Land use & community planning

How we use land and the land-use decisions we make today are perhaps the most important, long–term environmental issues facing Wisconsin. The vast majority of Wisconsin’s wetlands, approximately 75 percent, are privately owned. As a result, individual landowners, developers and local governments are the principal land use decision-makers. In order to be successful in addressing environmental concerns, the DNR must work with others to help guide development patterns that maintain Wisconsin’s character and minimize negative environmental effects.

Local Communities can also learn more from the Wisconsin Wetlands Association’s Land Use and Wetlands [exit DNR] web page and publications.

1. 2. EPA843-F-06-004 3. EPA843–F–06–001. 4. Wisconsin’s Biodiversity as a Management Issue Report, 1995. 5. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation 6.EPA832–R–93–005) 7. Wisconsin’s Biodiversity as a Management Issue Report, 1995.