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Wisconsin wetlands: assessment methods and tools


This page provides an overview of the assessment methodologies that the DNR and others have developed to assess wetland health and wetland functional values. Some methods focus on individual wetlands, while others may be used to assess many wetlands in a larger area, such as a watershed. These assessment methods require professional expertise. Use the descriptions below to determine the most appropriate assessment method for your needs.

Level 1, 2, 3 Approach to wetland assessment and monitoring

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Wetlands Monitoring Workgroup has endorsed the concept of a Level 1, 2, 3 approach to monitoring. Level 1, "landscape assessment," relies on coarse, landscape scale inventory information, typically gathered through remote sensing and preferably stored in, or convertible to, a geographic information system (GIS) format. Level 2 is "rapid assessment" at the specific wetland site scale, using relatively simple, rapid protocols. Level 2 assessment protocols are to be validated by and calibrated to Level 3 assessments. Level 3 is "intensive site assessment," and uses intensive research–derived, multi–metric indices of biological integrity. All of these methods have been developed with grants from EPA, Region V.

Level 1

Multiple Decision Support Tools

Milwaukee River Basin Wetland Assessment Project: Developing Decision Support Tools for Effective Planning [2006, PDF]

The full Final Report to EPA describes:

  1. A method for identifying "potentially restorable wetlands", in the Basin.
  2. A set of wetland–related "watershed metrics" that characterize ecological conditions in the watersheds and subwatersheds of the basin.
  3. A Wildlife Habitat Decision Support Tool that planners can use to evaluate the wildlife support provided by existing wetland habitats and a means of evaluating future land use scenerios. For instance, a planner could evaluate where wetland restoration can generate the most benefit for wildlife.
  4. A Water Quality Decision Support Tool that planners can use to evaluate the relative contributions of existing wetlands to downstream water quality in different watersheds. This can also be used to evaluate future land use scenarios and where wetland restoration can generate the most benefit for improving water quality.
  5. Progress to date on a Floodwater Storage Decision Support Tool.
  6. Discussion of the uses and limitations of the project data and tools.

Level 2

Wisconsin Rapid Wetland Assessment Methodology version 2

Note: Wisconsin DNR is partnering with multiple State of Minnesota natural resource agencies to develop a new Level 2 Wetland Assessment Tool.  More information about the Wisconsin-Minnesota Wetland Functional Assessment Initiative can be found on the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources website. Public input related to development of the new assessment tool will be requested at a later date.

The Wisconsin Wetland Rapid Assessment Methodology version 2 is a qualitative method developed to provide a standardized process for the professional to evaluate the extent to which a specific wetland performs a given function. The full range of wetland functions and values are covered. The presence or absence of specific characteristics is used to determine the importance of each functional value for a site. The method documents the best professional judgment of the evaluator and requires one or more field visits. The WRAM consists of two components.

  1. WRAM data form [PDF]
  2. WRAM user guide [PDF]
    This guide gives explanations for each of the questions asked in the WRAM data form. The user guide also includes three Appendices and one template.
    1. Appendix A – Wisconsin Priority Townships [PDF]
    2. Appendix B – Wetland Characteristics for 12–Digit Watersheds
      1. Microsoft Excel format (for electronic viewing) [XLS]
      2. Adobe PDF format (for printing) [PDF]
    3. Appendix C – Storm and Floodwater Storage Example [PDF]
    4. Template for Storm and Floodwater Storage Calculation [XLS]

Coarse-Level Monitoring Protocol for Southern Sedge Meadows and Wet-Mesic Prairies

Coarse-level metrics based on ecological integrity provide an alternative means of rapid assessment. Each metric has established quantitative condition tiers ranging from best to lowest quality. Metrics can be rolled up to assess each parameter (composition, structure, and hydrology) separately as well as rolled up into a composite rank for the entire site. Evaluation of these metrics requires a basic understanding of wetlands but does not require extensive botanical expertise. Metrics can be used by practitioners to evaluate initial site conditions, determine next management steps, and measure restoration progress over time.

  1. Coarse-level metric protocol user guide [PDF] 
  2. Southern Sedge Meadow Coarse-Level Metric data form [PDF] 
  3. Wet-Mesic Prairie Coarse-Level Metric data form [PDF] 

Level 3

Floristic Quality Assessment Methods

Development of a Floristic Quality Assessment Methodology for Wisconsin [June 2003, PDF]
This method allows for an intensive, expert-based, assessment of the floristic quality, or biological condition, of a given wetland plant community. It is based on the assignment of a coefficient of conservatism to the vascular plant species found in Wisconsin. The method requires a high degree of plant identification skill to correctly inventory the site.

The Wisconsin Floristic Quality Assessment Calculator [XLSX]
The FQA Calculator is now available to enter plant inventory data and calculate FQA metrics, such as the average coefficient of conservatism (Mean C) and the Floristic Quality Index (FQI). It contains the most recent (2016) authoritative list of plant species, as recognized by the Wisconsin State Herbarium, along with their assigned coefficient of conservatism, wetland indicator status and other useful information. It is designed to allow users to enter the results of timed meander surveys (plant names and percent areal cover) to calculate weighted Mean C and weighted FQI, as well as other useful metrics. FQA results from select wetland community types can be compared to benchmark values allowing a site to be assigned a category along a biological condition gradient. Because it contains the complete WI plant list, it can be used to calculate FQA metrics for any plant community in Wisconsin.

Timed-Meander Survey

Timed-Meander Sampling Protocol for Wetland Floristic Quality Assessment [PDF]
This standard operating procedure (SOP) describes the methods used by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to conduct timed-meander surveys of wetland plant communities to determine their condition.

Wisconsin Depressional Wetland Biological Indices

Development of a Biological Index and Classification System for Wisconsin Wetlands Using Macroinvertebrates and Plants [January 2000, PDF]
Figures: Development of a Biological Index and Classification System for Wisconsin Wetlands [PDF]
This methodology is intended for use in small isolated depressional wetlands based on work in 103 small wetlands across Wisconsin. It contains two separate indices of biological integrity: a plant community index and an index based on the macroinvertebrate community. Each index is composed of multiple metrics, or measures of the plant or macroinvertebrate community that have been found to be significantly correlated with an increase in disturbance to wetlands. It is not intended for use in wetlands with a fish community or a hydrologic connection to other surface waters. (The family–level macroinvertebrate index requires sampling to be done in early spring.)

Refinement and Expansion of Wetland Biological Indices for Wisconsin [April 2002, PDF]
This further work developed additional biological indices for isolated depressional wetlands. Multi–metric indices were developed for the zooplankton, diatom and amphibian communities. The plant and macroinvertebrate metrics were further refined. These indices were developed using a reference set of 74 Isolated depressional wetlands.