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Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge

Table of Contents

1. Introduction and Background

  • History of Refuge Establishment, Acquisition and Management
  • Purpose of and Need for Action
  • Refuge Purpose
  • Refuge Vision Statement
  • Legal and Policy Guidance
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its Mission
  • The National Wildlife Refuge System and its Mission
  • Fulfilling the Promise
  • North American Waterfowl Management Plan
  • Partners In Flight
  • Regional Wetlands Concept Plan
  • Ohio River Valley Ecosystem Strategic Plan

2. Planning Process

  • Planning Issues

3. Refuge and Resource Description

  • Physical Environment
  • Water Quality
  • Topography/Soils
  • Geology/Hydrology
  • Air Quality
  • Biological Environment
  • Terrestrial Habitats
  • Wetland Habitats
  • Aquatic Habitats
  • Fish and Wildlife
  • Rare, Threatened, and Endangered Species
  • Socioeconomic Environment
  • History/Archaeology
  • Land Use
  • Recreational Use

4. Management Direction

  • Refuge Management Direction: Goals and Objectives
Goal 1 (Habitat)
Goal 2 (Biological Monitoring)
Goal 3 (Priority Public Uses)
Goal 4 (Raise Public Awareness)
Goal 5 (Staff and Facilities)
  • Alternatives Considered, but eliminated from detailed study
  • Summary of Management Actions and Strategies (Figure 4)
  • Summary of Potential Impacts (Figure 5)

5. Implementation and Monitoring

  • Background
  • Step-Down Management Plans
  • Proposed Staffing Chart (Figure 6)
  • Compatibility Determinations
  • Plan Performance
  • Partnership Opportunities
  • Monitoring and Evaluation


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Comprehensive Conservation Plan

Refuge and Resource Description

The geographic area encompassed by the plan is Ohio River Mile 0 (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) to 437 (Meldahl Dam). This chapter describes the refuge and the natural and cultural resources associated with it.

Physical Environment

Water Quality

Present water quality in the study area is generally acceptable to good, with nearly neutral pH, good color, adequate dissolved oxygen (except for reduced levels just upstream of the locks and dams occasionally during the low flow months), and reasonably low iron and manganese concentrations. However, extensive periods of turbidity (due to high suspended sediment loads) and subsequent sedimentation of aquatic substrates is impacting both water and habitat quality. The principal cause of these problems is poor land management practices in the watershed (logging, mining, lack of buffer strips, removal of riparian habitat, agricultural runoff), both local and distant in nature. According to the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission, concentrations of pesticides, organic compounds, and heavy metals in fish flesh have dramatically decreased in the last ten years; however, recent data has revealed possible contaminants present in fish in certain Ohio River segments. Fish consumption advisories are in effect for all four states. Water quality continues to improve and is presently able to support a viable aquatic community.


The study area lies almost entirely within the Appalachian Plateau Physiographic Province except the extreme lower portion (containing only three islands) which is located in the Interior Low Plateau Physiographic Province. The average width of the Ohio River varies from 1,450 feet near the upper end to 1,600 feet near the lower end of Meldahl Dam.

The alluvial sediments in the study reach consist of glacial outwash fill of sand and gravel. These glacial outwash deposits are as much as 125 feet thick. They are composed primarily of sand and gravel derived from local Pennsylvanian and Permian age sedimentary rocks. Other sand and gravels are composed of granite, quartzite, vein quartz, and chert glacially transported from Canadian sources. Most of the river in the study reach flows on this alluvial outwash plain.

The islands were formed by accretion of flood deposits over gravel and rock bars to the height of the floodplain. Certain land use practices (e.g., mining, farming, and timbering) have resulted in extensive erosion in the last century along some mainland and island shorelines.

Most soils on floodplains and islands are classified as fine sandy or silt loams of the Huntington, Chagrin, and Linside series. The Huntington and Chagrin soils are very well drained while the Linside series are classified as moderately well drained and somewhat poorly drained soils. A small amount of poorly drained Melvin silt loam is located in the study area, primarily on Blennerhassett and Grape Islands and on the mainland of Boaz Swamp.


The Ohio River begins at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Monongahela River rises in northcentral West Virginia and the Allegheny River rises in southwestern New York. The 437 mile study reach of the Ohio River begins at Pittsburgh, forms the border of West Virginia and Kentucky with Ohio, and ends at the Meldahl Lock and Dam. The first 300 river miles portion of the study reach flows in a southwest direction and turns in a westerly direction at the Kentucky-West Virginia border for the last 140 miles. The river in the study reach falls approximately 0.44 feet per mile. The study reach traverses 12 navigation pools on the Ohio River. These are, in descending order: Emsworth, Dashields, Montgomery, New Cumberland, Pike Island, Hannibal, Willow Island, Belleville, Racine, R. C. Byrd, Greenup, and Meldahl.

The Ohio River flows down a very gently sloping plateau consisting of almost horizontal sedimentary strata of sandstones, shales, and limestone. The bed of the Ohio River, as mentioned earlier, is covered by deep alluvial deposits composed mainly of sand and gravel. Some of these deposits have been dredged for commercial purposes. The base of all but two of the islands (Eureka and Letart whose bases are composed of bedrock) in the study reach is composed of sand and gravel capped with sediments deposited by flooding. Commercial sand and gravel operations (instream and land-based) also occur throughout the study reach.

There are two major sources of groundwater in the study area. Most of the groundwater immediately adjacent to the Ohio River is recovered via induced river discharge from the glacial deposits over which the Ohio River flows. The second source is found in the bedrock beneath the alluvial deposits and soils. Eureka, Middle, Neal, and Blennerhassett Islands have established water wells for industrial and municipal use. Gas, oil, and salt brine are also recovered from the underlying bedrock. For example, many islands contain the remnants of some old oil drilling operations. Gas/oil operations are presently confined to the low terrace and floodplain of the study reach, primarily in the Willow Island and Belleville navigation pools.

The immediate floodplain and all of the islands have flooded numerous times, as evidenced by extensive sediment layers over their sand and gravel cores; however, the extent and frequency of flooding on the Ohio River has been reduced by numerous tributary and headwater reservoirs.

It is important to note that the Ohio River is a greatly altered ecosystem, impounded for navigation purposes. The altered hydrology has affected significantly the quality of both aquatic and terrestrial habitats. Many islands, shallow gravel bars, riffles, and channel wetlands have been lost, and have been replaced by deepwater habitats. Impoundment of the river and resulting elevated water table has altered the plant community composition of the riparian corridor - favoring a silver maple dominated forest.

Air Quality

Most areas of the Refuge and the surrounding lands currently meet federal air quality standards for the six "criteria pollutants", which are ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulates, lead, and nitrogen oxides. Nonattainment areas (defined as an area that does not meet national primary or secondary ambient air quality standards, or that contributes to ambient air quality in a nearby area that does not meet standards) are located in Beaver County, Pennsylvania (part of the Pittsburgh-Beaver Valley ozone nonattainment zone) and in Boyd County, Kentucky.

There are no Class I areas (i.e., where air quality standards are stricter because of outstanding visual resources) near any portion of the Refuge. The Refuge is designated as a Class II area, and is protected under the Clean Air Act. It is identified for less stringent protection for air pollution damage than a Class I area, except in specified cases. Hundreds of other airborne chemicals may be toxic or hazardous, but are not subject to ambient standards under state or federal law.

Nonattainment Areas



1-hour O3





Pittsburgh, PA Allegheny





Wheeling, WV Ohio            
Parkersburg, WV Wood            
Huntington, WV Cabell            
Ashland, KY Boyd    



Biological Environment

The Service classifies the islands and associated aquatic, wetland, and bottomland habitats as Resource Category 1 under our Mitigation Policy. By definition, the island habitats are of high value for the evaluation species and are unique and irreplaceable on a national basis or in an ecoregion section. Aquatic habitats associated with the islands and their back channels comprise less than one percent of the open water acreage of the Ohio River in the study reach. However, these areas provide some of the region's highest quality riverine, wetland, and bottomland habitats and are used by migratory and resident waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds, raptors, wading birds, warmwater fishes, and freshwater mussels. Because there is no longer any glacial transport of sand, gravel, cobble, and boulders which formed the islands, and because of the current navigation system, new islands will not be created. For the same reasons, there will be no significant natural maintenance of existing islands. They are irreplaceable.

Terrestrial Habitats

Along the floodplains of the Ohio River in this region, bottomland hardwood forests are the natural climax community. Much of this habitat type has been eliminated by industrial, residential, and agricultural development. The remaining riparian area is often less than a few hundred feet in width. This habitat type has the classic four layered plant structure. Dominant tree species in the overstory are silver maple, sycamore, cottonwood, and black willow; minor trees include slippery elm, pin oak, river birch, sweet gum, and hickories. Representative species in the lower canopy include: hackberry, black locust, American elm, green ash, box elder, pawpaw, buckeye, and black walnut. Shrubs include spice bush, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, dogwoods, black elderberry, and grape species. Herbaceous density and diversity of ground cover varies with the amount of light penetration. Typical ground cover includes wingstem, touch-me-nots, white snakeroot, and a profusion of invasive exotic plants (Japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, mile-a-minute, Japanese hops, and kudzu).

This floodplain forest community provides good habitat for furbearers such as beaver and cavity nesting species such as wood duck, pileated woodpecker, prothonotary warbler, fox squirrel, and raccoon. It also provides the proper canopy structure and insect life required to support other migratory songbirds like the warbling vireo, yellow-billed cuckoo, northern oriole, over 25 species of warblers, and many species of bats. Mature trees provide roosting and nesting habitat for piscivorous birds, such as osprey, bald eagle, and herons. Understory provides habitat for species such as white-footed mice, white-tailed deer, Carolina wren, and wood thrush. Because these areas are often interspersed with aquatic habitat types, they are of immense value to wildlife.

The other major terrestrial habitat type occurring throughout the planning area is oldfield. Very little active agricultural lands occur within the acquisition area. The early successional habitats were farmed, grazed, or otherwise disturbed in the recent past by oil and gas activities, recreational development, logging, and abandoned industrial sites. These fragmented oldfield habitat blocks are comprised of mostly herbaceous species and grasses (goldenrods, mustards, thistle, reed canarygrass, bindweed, ironweed, joe-pye weed, ragweed, asters, and pokeweed) with some woody species beginning to take hold (blackberry, raspberry, rose, false indigo, dogwoods, and black elderberry). Numerous mammals (white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbit, ground hog, deer mouse, meadow vole) and migratory birds (American goldfinch, sparrows, yellow-breasted chat, swallows, blue-winged warbler, common yellowthroat, willow flycatcher, northern harrier, and owls) use this habitat type.

The riparian edge/shoreline areas along the islands provide important habitat for a number of wildlife species dependent on this limited habitat type, such as belted kingfisher, spotted sandpiper, bank swallows, killdeer, mink, muskrat, river otter, and a variety of amphibians, reptiles and insects (including some rare species of tiger beetles).

There are a total of 40 islands remaining in the upper Ohio River. Twenty islands are part of the Refuge at the present time. These island habitats contain near natural assemblages of plants and animals that are endemic to the river. The interspersion of bottomland and riparian habitats, and deep and shallow water aquatic habitats makes these areas extremely valuable to fish and wildlife species. Waterfowl, shore and wading birds, raptors, neo-tropical migratory land birds, furbearers, fish and benthic organisms, including freshwater mussels, find these areas invaluable for resting, feeding, nesting, spawning, and other necessary life functions. The deep and shallow water habitats associated with the islands are major fish and mussel production areas of the Ohio River. Additionally, the often undisturbed island shorelines, especially the heads and backchannels, are favored sport fishing areas. Over 200 bird species (76 of which breed there), 42 mollusk species, 15 species of reptiles and amphibians, 101 species of fish, 25 mammals, and 500 species of plants have been identified so far within the Refuge.

Wetland Habitats

Prior to impoundment, the Ohio River was a relatively shallow river (the average depth in summer was less than one foot), with numerous islands, gravel bars, channel wetlands (riverine emergent, and riverine aquatic bed), and adjacent overflow sloughs surrounded by bottomland hardwood forests. Impoundment of the river for navigation interests has created primarily deepwater habitat along the main channel corridor (average depth in channel 20 to 30 feet, with a maximum of 50 feet) and many islands, shallow bars, and channel wetlands have disappeared. Most of the remaining shallow water and wetlands in the floodplain occur in the embayments - the drowned tributary mouths inundated by backwaters from the impounded Ohio River. Think of the embayments as "displaced wetlands," situated off the main channel and up into the tributaries.

Major wetland habitat types and dominant plant species (if any) in the embayments and along the mainland wetlands include:

- riverine open water (deep water, mudflats, and exposed cobble/gravel);

- riverine emergent (water willow, American lotus, lizardtail, bullhead lily, arrowhead, horsetail, arrow arum, yellow iris);

- riverine aquatic bed (water celery, pondweeds, milfoils, duckweed, Elodea sp., coontail, naiads);

- palustrine open water (deep water and mudflats, cut-off from flow);

- palustrine emergent (smartweeds, wild millet, cattail, sedges, rushes, sweet flag, bulrushes, wild rye, rice cutgrass, false nettle, spike rushes, swamp milkweed, sensitive fern, swamp rose mallow, burreed, marsh purslane, monkeyflowers, vervains, spotted and pale touch-me-nots, boneset, cardinal flower, begger-ticks, loosestrife, seedbox, bedstraw, bugleweed, water horehound, tickseed sunflowers, black elderberry, St. Johnswort, moneywort, ditch stonecrop, primrose willow, and dodder);

- palustrine scrub/shrub (black willow, brookside alder, buttonbush, dogwoods, false indigo, sandbar willow, swamp rose); and,

- palustrine forested (black willow, eastern cottonwood, sycamore, slippery elm, silver maple, American elm, river birch, green ash, pin oak, hackberry).

In the Refuge planning area, there are approximately 5,500 acres of relatively undisturbed embayments and mainland wetlands affected by the Ohio River backwaters which have some significance to fish and wildlife. The physical characteristics and values of the embayments vary throughout the years and seasons. In summer, during the height of the growing season, the diversity of wetland plants and habitat types provide excellent food and cover for migratory and resident wildlife. The shallow water habitats are important feeding areas for wading birds such as great blue herons, great egrets and black-crowned night herons - especially for those which nest in rookeries nearby and feed in the embayments while raising their young. After fledging, juvenile herons concentrate in the embayments as well. Wood ducks, mallards, and Canada geese raise their broods in the embayments and along the mainland wetlands in summer. Young-of-year fishes find shelter in the riverine aquatic bed and emergent wetlands. The embayments are important nursery areas for Ohio River fishes, particularly bass and sunfish. The embayments also support an abundance of amphibians and reptiles (snapping turtles, spiny-softshell turtles, painted turtles, map turtles, northern water snake, bull frog, leopard frog, green frog, pickerel frog, grey tree frog, spring peeper, fowler's toad, American toad), as well as at least 19 species of mussels.

Fall generally brings lower water levels in the embayments, exposing mudflats and invertebrates as well as aquatic plants to feed migrating shorebirds, wading birds and waterfowl. Native wildlife food plants such as smartweeds, bulrushes, wild rye and millet lie down and become available to migratory birds and other wildlife. Soft mast-producing trees and shrubs dominate in the embayments (elderberry, cherry, spicebush, hackberry, grape, dogwoods), providing abundant food for migratory landbirds en-route to their southern destinations.

During the winter, the emergent wetland vegetation in the embayments lays down and dies back, but much submerged aquatic vegetation and rootstocks remain as important food for wintering waterfowl and muskrat. While high water and swift currents are common on the main river in winter, the embayments provide quiet resting places off the main river for fish and wildlife to conserve energy. Over 25 species of waterfowl (ducks, geese, swans, mergansers) and other waterbirds (loons, grebes, and gulls) rest and feed in the embayments in winter as long as they remain ice-free. Bald eagles are more abundant in winter than at other times of the year along the river and in the embayments, as they shift south off frozen lakes and rivers in the north, and find abundant food and occasional large roosting trees along the river.

Spring comes to the embayments earlier than the main river, as the shallow waters warm up faster. Those bottomlands which were flooded in winter "green up," and exposed mudflats again nourish migrating shorebirds and wading birds. Herons and waterfowl begin to nest as early as March. Neotropical migratory landbirds also return to nest, including warblers, thrushes, vireos, cuckoos, flycatchers, and tanagers. Many more species pass through on their journey back to their northern breeding range, stopping and feeding on late fruits, early seeds, and abundant insects.

Aquatic Habitats

The sand, gravel, and cobble beaches which typify most of the islands are good indicators of the river substrates which extend from the islands down into the depths of the river. Different substrate types are associated with the islands, including sand, gravel, cobble, boulder, emergent and submerged stumps and logs, other detritus, silt, clay, muck, and emergent and submerged riverine aquatic beds. The substrate type in a particular location is a function of the current velocity and current pattern. Sand, gravel, and cobbles are predominately associated with island heads and shorelines where high current velocities keep these coarser substrates swept clean of the fine materials. With the exception of those areas which lie directly downstream of locks and dams, the heads of the islands more closely resemble a natural riffle/run habitat which was a major characteristic of the Ohio River prior to impoundment.

During those years when environmental conditions are suitable, large expanses of submerged aquatic beds extend along the shorelines of the islands, out to a depth of approximately four feet. Shorelines along an inside bend, backchannel shorelines, and toes of islands are usually a combination of softer substrates-sand, silt, clay, and detritus. Submerged and emergent logs and stumps may accumulate in depositional areas.

In general, the aquatic habitats adjacent to and surrounding the islands are dominated by hard substrates (gravel, cobble, and boulder). At the present time, over 100 species of fish and over 40 species of native freshwater mussels inhabit the aquatic habitats adjacent to the island Refuge. The backchannel habitats of the islands (approximately 1,500 acres) have a greater degree of protection from natural and human induced disturbances, such as erosive currents, wind, and commercial navigation.

Fish and Wildlife

A complete listing of all birds, freshwater fishes, mollusks, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and flora known to exist within the Refuge's study area are listed in Appendix D. These listings include: the family that each identified species belongs to; scientific names and common names; the current status of the species; and whether or not the species is native to the area.

The birds of the Refuge are probably the most conspicuous group of wildlife, in terms of their numbers, visibility, and overall diversity of species. Over 200 species of birds have already been recorded using the Refuge at some time during the yearly cycle of seasons (Appendix D). The Refuge provides different habitat requirements for birds at different times of the year. By and large, the most abundant group of birds are migrants (143 species). These are birds which spend part of the year elsewhere, but come to the Refuge either to breed in the summer, spend the winter, or merely pass through (feeding and resting) during the spring and fall. Only 44 species of birds are considered year-round residents on the Refuge, and six species are "accidental tourists."

Migratory landbirds (such as warblers, vireos, cuckoos, tanagers, thrushes, orioles, and flycatchers) spend the winter in Central or South America but migrate up through the Ohio River Valley in spring en route to their breeding grounds, either on the Refuge or points farther north. Many go as far north as Canada and the Arctic, and then back south again in the fall. The Ohio River corridor is poised on the boundary between the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways, and is a major migration route for birds. Migratory birds are the dominant breeding birds on the Refuge. To date, 78 species are known to nest on the Refuge, and the most abundant nesters include grey catbird, wood thrush, song sparrow, yellow warbler, common yellowthroat, northern cardinal, yellow-breasted chat, American robin, common grackle, acadian flycatcher, Carolina wren, red-eyed vireo, American redstart, Carolina chickadee, Eastern towhee, American goldfinch and white-eyed vireo. Of the 20 species of concern identified by the West Virginia Partners in Flight team, 15 are known to nest on the Refuge.

Water birds heavily use the floodplain habitats of the Refuge. Herons, egrets, ducks, geese, swans, loons, grebes, gulls, terns, shorebirds, osprey, and bald eagles are common along the islands and in the embayments, and are much more easily seen out in the open than some of their smaller and more secretive colleagues. Nesting water birds include great blue heron, green heron, osprey, wood duck, mallard, American black duck, Canada goose, killdeer, spotted sandpiper, belted kingfisher, and herring gull. The remaining species of water birds are found on the Refuge during migration, or, in the case of most waterfowl (25 species) and the bald eagle, primarily in the winter. The Refuge monitors the nesting activities of osprey and great blue herons on the Refuge. The mean number of osprey young hatched since 1995 on Neal Island is 2.5, and the average number of young fledged is 2.0. Great blue heron rookeries occur on Grape, Fish Creek and Muskingum Islands, and are expanding onto mainland areas and new islands. In 1992, there were 245 active heron nests on two islands, and the average number of young fledged per nest was 2.3. In 1999, there were 200 nests spread out among four islands.

Many raptors on the Refuge are year-round residents, such as the great horned owl, eastern screech owl, barred owl, red-tailed hawk, cooper's hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, American kestrel, broad-winged hawk, and red-shouldered hawk. Other birds of prey visit the Refuge only during migration or winter, such as the merlin, peregrine falcon, northern harrier, and rough-legged hawk. There is an abundance of small mammals and birds which serve as food for the raptor populations.

To date, 25 species of mammals have been documented on the Refuge (Appendix D). The general hydrologic characteristics of the islands, which includes regular flooding, dictate that ground-dwelling mammals must be primarily transient in nature (in other words, good swimmers), or able to climb trees. The most commonly observed mammals include white-tailed deer, fox squirrel, raccoon, muskrat, beaver, opossum, red fox, woodchuck, and eastern cottontail rabbit. The larger mammals are seen frequently swimming back and forth between the islands and the mainland. The small mammal populations include five species of bats, meadow vole, short-tailed shrew, meadow jumping mouse, white-footed mouse and deer mouse. Riparian fur bearers, such as mink, muskrat and beaver, are noticeably more abundant along the back channels and wetland habitats of the embayments than along the main channel/navigation sides of the islands.

The distribution of mammals on the Refuge is heavily influenced by habitat type. Nearly 60% of the Refuge is now bottomland hardwood forest (up from 38% in 1981). As the habitats change, the mammal populations will respond with a shift towards the forest community and away from the old field community. Although most of the mammals are considered residents, bats in particular migrate long distances from their winter hibernacula in caves to their summer range along the Ohio River. The endangered Indiana bat has been documented in riparian forests adjacent to the Refuge, within Wayne National Forest.

Due to problems with access, the reptile and amphibian fauna of the Refuge has not been well studied. Existing information for herpetofauna is merely presence or absence on a county basis, with no information on relative abundance. To date, Refuge staff have documented 15 species of reptiles and amphibians on the Refuge, but this information is merely a beginning (Appendix D). The wetland habitats on and around the islands, and within the embayments and mainland wetlands, provide suitable habitat for a variety of amphibians, including American toad, Fowler's toad, green frog, bullfrog, gray tree frog complex, northern spring peeper, pickerel frog, and northern leopard frog. No salamander information is available.

Snakes in general are not abundant on the islands, primarily because of the tendency of the islands to flood regularly - snakes which might den or overwinter on the islands would probably not survive a winter flood event. However, the occasional garter snake or black rat snake is seen on the Refuge, and northern water snakes swim to and from the islands.

Four species of turtles have been recorded on the Refuge so far - the terrestrial eastern box turtle, and the more aquatic snapping turtle, midland painted turtle, and eastern spiny softshell turtle.

Over 100 species of warm water fishes inhabit the Ohio River which flows through the Refuge (Appendix D). The islands provide a variety of habitat types for the diverse fish fauna - shallow gravel and sand bars, aquatic beds, overhanging cover, logs and snags, as well as large rock and cobble. Riverine emergent and submerged wetlands teem with young-of-year fishes. However, the deep water habitats are very difficult to sample effectively. Fishes are sampled primarily by State Natural Resource agencies in lock rotenone surveys, nearshore electrofishing, and shallow water seining. Many pelagic fishes and those which dwell in deep water along the bottom are often missed. Refuge divers have noted numerous species of darters, minnows, and madtoms in 20 feet of water, yet they are hard to collect.

The Ohio River along the Refuge supports a diverse recreational fishery, highlighted by spotted, smallmouth and largemouth bass, white and hybrid striped bass, channel and flathead catfish, sauger, walleye, black and white crappie, and freshwater drum. There is currently no commercial fishery in the Ohio River adjacent to West Virginia, Ohio or Pennsylvania.

Mollusks on the Refuge include freshwater mussels (the most diverse group), aquatic snails, and terrestrial snails. There are currently 50 species of freshwater mussels remaining in the Ohio River today, and 38 of these have been collected on the Refuge so far (Appendix D). Historically, there were upwards of 80 species in the free-flowing Ohio River, but habitat changes over the past 100 years have resulted in the extinction of at least 3 species, and the extirpation of many more. In addition to the habitat and water quality problems which mussels have faced, add the new threat caused by the invasion of the exotic zebra mussel. Zebra mussels first entered the Refuge in 1993, and since that time, their density has exploded to 13,000 animals per square meter. Zebra mussels compete with native mussels for food and oxygen, interfere with their reproduction, and encrust native mussels so heavily that the native mussels cannot open and close their shell, burrow, or move effectively. It's easy to see why freshwater mussels are the most imperiled group of animals on the Refuge.

Every Refuge island has been surveyed at least once, and each one has some mussel fauna associated with the underwater habitat surrounding it. At least two federally endangered mussels occur on the Refuge (pink mucket and fanshell) in the Belleville, Racine, RC Byrd, and Greenup pools. The most diverse mussel bed is found at Muskingum Island, with 28 species and an average density of 12 live mussels per square meter. Mussels generally require clean-swept sand, gravel, cobble and boulder habitat, and well oxygenated and nutrient rich waters. These habitats are abundant around the islands.

Commercial harvest of mussels (primarily for the cultured pearl industry) is generally permitted in Kentucky waters, but not in the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio or West Virginia. However, there are sanctuaries in place adjacent to the Kentucky Refuge islands which prohibit commercial harvest from those areas.

The snail fauna of the Refuge are not as well known as their bivalve cousins. Two species of terrestrial snails have been found on the Refuge so far, and their distribution is restricted to islands. The aquatic snails in the upper Ohio River are not as diverse as in the lower 500 miles, and those that remain are impacted by the zebra mussel as well.

Rare, Threatened, and Endangered Species

Four federally listed species are known to inhabit the Refuge planning area: bald eagle, Indiana bat, pink mucket pearly mussel, and fanshell mussel. The bald eagle is most common during the winter months (November through March), but some have been seen throughout the summer. The Indiana bat spends winters in cave systems far from the Refuge, but inhabits the Ohio River in summer. The pink mucket and fanshell mussels, on the other hand, are year-round residents in the riverbed.

Numerous species of flora and fauna occur on the Refuge which are considered rare, threatened, endangered, or of special interest by the states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. Appendix D contains complete lists of plants and animals documented thus far on the Refuge, along with their current status under federal or state guidelines. At the present time, the Ohio River Islands Refuge is home to 45 species of special status birds, 33 special status fish, 31 special status mollusks, six species of special status terrestrial vertebrates, and 39 species of rare plants.

The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) (formerly listed as endangered) has recently expanded its range and migrates through the Ohio River Valley in fall and spring. In August 1999, the Service removed the peregrine falcon from the list of endangered and threatened species, removing protections provided to the species. However, section 4(g)(1) of the Endangered Species Act requires implementation of a monitoring program for a minimum of five years. The Service has decided to monitor the peregrine falcon for 13 years, to provide data that will reflect the status of at least two generations of peregrines. If it becomes evident during this period that the peregrine is not maintaining its recovered status, the species could be relisted. The peregrine continues to be protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits the taking, killing, possession, transportation, and importation of migratory birds, their eggs, parts, and nests except when specifically authorized by the Department of the Interior.

Socioeconomic Environment

The largest cities along the Ohio River's banks are Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Louisville, Kentucky. All three of the cities grew in the 1800s, largely through use of the river as a transportation route. Today, the river remains an important commercial artery. In 1999, the Port of Pittsburgh was ranked the 11th largest port in the United States and the largest inland port in the country. Most shipping today is of bulk products, primarily coal, which is mined in all of the states bordering the Ohio, loaded onto barges near the mines, and carried to electricity-generating plants along the river. Gravel and petroleum products are also transported.

Many of the larger (and more visited) islands in the Refuge's boundary are clustered around the Parkersburg, West Virginia and Marietta, Ohio area. The counties of these two cities (Wood County and Washington County, respectively) comprise the metropolitan area of over 149,000 people.


A 1998 geological and archeological assessment of the Ohio River Islands Refuge was able to classify the islands into three general types:

  • Islands with sediments having recent origins not likely to contain prehistoric archaeological sites;
  • Islands with Holocene sediments likely to contain historic artifacts close to the surface and deeply buried prehistoric sites; and
  • Islands which contain a core area of Pleistocene sediments, overlaid by shallow Holocene age sediments which are likely to contain prehistoric and historic resources closer to the surface (Diamanti 1998).

The processes of island formation have direct implications for the potential of archaeological resources within the soils of the Refuge islands. Because we now understand the processes that formed the islands within the Refuge area, we can better manage archaeological resources and better predict which islands are more likely to have archaeologically sensitive areas. Island formation is also relevant to what kinds of prehistoric sites could exist on the individual islands. For example, if an island only contains late Holocene sediments (i.e. 4,000 years before present (BP) to present), then Paleoindian and Early Archaic sites would not exist on that island. [More detailed information on the archeology of the area can be found in Appendix B.]

While French and British fur traders frequented the valley in the 18th century, the first extensive Euro-American settlement in the Ohio River valley began around 1790. The search for good agricultural land was the major impetus to westward migration and lands suitable for cultivation were quickly claimed. Farm products such as grain, tobacco, livestock and distilled liquor were the first produced for market. Settlement progressed rapidly in some areas and the population became sufficient in 1803 for Ohio to achieve status as America's seventeenth state.

The river was the major route for transportation of goods and inflow of settlers. Taverns and mercantile exchanges were established along the shore. River pirates occupied some of the region's many islands, preying upon travelers and slow-moving steamboats. Shallow fords between some islands also enabled some African slaves to escape to the free soil of Ohio. They were also used by participants of the Battle of Buffington Island, during Morgan's retreat to West Virginia.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the region felt the afflictions of the Civil War and the development of the Industrial Revolution. In the twentieth century, the Ohio River itself was transformed by human engineering. The level of the river has been raised by a set of locks and dams. The fords and portions of the Refuge islands that were above the water during the prehistoric and early historic periods are now inundated.

The islands figure prominently in the early explorers' accounts of prehistoric and contemporary Indians, George Washington's surveying expeditions, the settling of the Ohio River by pioneers and traders, strategic battles during the Civil War, and river exploitation for navigation and industry. Islands were once more numerous than they are today. In the early 1900's, there were 60 islands within the planning area (437 miles). With the advent of industrialization and modern improvements for navigation, 20 islands were lost and, apparently one (Lesage Island), was created:

Ohio River Islands in the Planning Area No Longer Existent

Line Island Deadman's Island
Baker Islands Crow Island
Cluster Island (one of two remain) Hog Island
Black Island Montgomery Island
Pike Island Mingo Island
French Island Clines Island
Willow Island Six Mile Island
Belleville Island  
Goose Island  
Oldtown Island  
Letart Island (one of two remain)  
Raccoon Island  
Upper Sister Island  

At least four islands were modified by natural forces. Grape and Bat Islands were "fused" through sedimentation. A palustrine wetland complex now exists within the area between the two islands. The island complex is called Grape Island but some references are noted as Grape (Bat). Goose Island, formally located between mile 230 and 231, apparently disappeared through sedimentation and a shift in the flow direction of Mill Creek. Upper Brothers Island, or French Island, may have experienced the same fate. Of the 40 existing islands between Pittsburgh - Pennsylvania (mile 0) and Meldahl Dam (Mile 437), five have been heavily urbanized and/or industrialized (Brunot, Davis, Neville, Wheeling, and Browns). Boggs Island has been extensively disturbed in recent years.

Land Use

Islands in the Ohio River have been and are currently used for a variety of purposes. The acreages associated with lands owned by the Refuge was shown in Chapter 1 (Figure 2). Acreages associated with the remaining islands, but not owned by the Refuge, is shown in Figure 3. Evidence of past Indian encampments, farming, logging, commercial dredging, mooring, construction, and oil drilling may be found. Indian artifacts and middens were observed on most of the islands. These islands were undoubtedly inhabited by Indians attracted by the rich farmland and plentiful fish and game. Agriculture and silvicultural activities occurred on all islands. Commercial dredging, mooring, or other construction has taken place around most of the islands. Belleville, Pike, Montgomery, and Willow Islands were eliminated by construction of their respectively named high-lift navigation dams. Oil drilling and loading operations are evident on Mill Creek, Grandview, Wells, and Muskingum Islands.

Evidence of past agricultural use can still be seen on Williamson, Middle, Marietta, and Neal Islands. No recent silvicultural operations are known. No active human residences are maintained on any of the islands. The head of Blennerhassett Island is maintained as a major historical and recreational attraction by the State Historic Park Commission. Past industrial activities include: water wells (Eureka, Neal, Blennerhassett), gas/oil and water wells (Middle), stockpiling (Williamson), spoil disposal (Manchester No. 1, Boggs), commercial sand and gravel dredging (potentially all), and mooring (Williamson, Eightmile, and Boggs). All of the islands have been threatened by sand and gravel dredging operations.

Recreational Use

The Ohio River, its islands and embayments, offer a wide range of outdoor settings, from relatively secluded areas to the bustling interface of towns and cities. Recreational use reflects seasonal opportunities and locations for specific activities. Some of the most popular public uses currently include fishing, pleasure boating, water-skiing, beach use, wildlife observation, and hunting. Gradual improvements in water quality and public access have helped create an atmosphere of increased interest in the river. However, many people remain skeptical about engaging in activities that bring them into direct contact with the water.

Parcel Name Land Underwater Total
Babbs Island 38.1 66.2 104.3
Cluster Island 17.2 146.4 163.6
Upper Griffen Island, 7.3 205.3 480.9
and Lower Griffen Island 3.9    
Browns Island 264.4    
Upper Twin Island, 2.9 125.3 142.8
and Lower Twin Island 14.6    
Boggs Island 14.6 56.9 71.5
Fish Creek Island 48.3 86.4 134.7
Eureka Island 24.7 65.3 90.0
Vienna Island 33.7 60.4 94.1
Blennerhassett Island 515 215.6 730.6
Newberry Island 5.3 58.7 64
Mustapha Island 25.3 101.5 126.8
Eightmile Island 18.2 104.4 122.6
Gallipolis Island 5 70.5 75.5
Lesage Island 20.5 -- 20.5
Brush Creek Island 25 146.6 171.6





About two-thirds of the area's fishing takes place at dam tailwaters, although many islands and embayments offer productive fish habitats that also attract anglers. Sedimentation in embayments and an apparent decrease in non-native largemouth bass in the upper river in recent years have generated concern from bass anglers and organizations sponsoring bass tournaments. Nevertheless, fishing use levels remain relatively steady since the Ohio Division of Wildlife conducted surveys in 1992 and 1993. At that time, fishing pressure for a 491-mile stretch of river was estimated at 2.5 million angler hours for both years. Some popular game species include the black basses, white bass and hybrids, catfish, crappie, walleye and sauger. Fishing occurs during the daytime and at night on the river.

Pleasure boating, including the use of jet skis, and water-skiing are increasing in popularity, with some access areas congested during summer weekends. Parking areas have been expanded or improved at ramps such as in Belpre, Ohio and Paden City, West Virginia. Although most recreational boaters do not lock through from pool to pool when on the river, recreational boat locking data collected at the Willow Island locks reflects an increasing use trend of boats on the river:

Year (# ) of recreational boats locking through at Willow Island
1993 1486
1995 1391
1996 1348
1998 1688
1999 1820

Some of the boating on the Refuge is incidental to travel required to go from one place to another, but potential impacts to Refuge resources can occur as noise and visual disturbance to wildlife and erosive wave action. Other boaters specifically use the Refuge as a place to temporarily moor while engaging in beach activities such as picnicking, swimming, and sunbathing.

Sandy beaches flank many of the river's islands, particularly on sides facing navigation channels. Illegal uses of the beaches have decreased markedly on some Refuge islands such as Phyllis, Paden, Williamson, Grape, and Manchester #2 during the past five years, as evidenced by staff observations and vegetation growth. Although these are not Refuge priority public uses, the information signs posted on the island and the Refuge brochure states that picnicking, swimming, and sunbathing are among those activities that are currently permitted. Future uses on Paden and Williamson Islands could increase in the future due to increased development, such as campsites, nearby. Beaches also occur along the mainland shores, but many of these areas are privately owned or largely unavailable to visiting recreationists.

Participation in activities such as wildlife observation and photography are becoming more popular on the river. Bird watching tours are chartered with at least one commercial sternwheel service. The varied habitats on the river and its islands and embayments and the wildlife response to improved environmental conditions offer the potential for growth in this type of recreation.

Designated sites for wildlife watching are limited, although the Refuge has two "Watchable Wildlife" sites described in the West Virginia Viewing Guide (one on road-accessible Middle Island, and the other on boat-accessible Muskingum Island). A wildlife viewing blind and trail were developed on Middle Island in 1999, providing a targeted area for this activity.

Hunting opportunities draw hunter interest to the river for white-tail deer, waterfowl, and small game such as rabbits and squirrels. Refuge purchase of islands has expanded hunting opportunities for the public. Islands once closed to all hunting or limited to a landowner and those with special permission now provide the same access to everyone. Some Refuge islands currently remain closed to hunting because of safety issues (usually related to proximity to developed portions of the mainland). Archery deer and waterfowl hunting receive the most participation, and are increasing with additional Refuge property acquisitions, although pressure remains light.

Environmental education opportunities are increasing on the river, both on the Refuge and off. Refuge staff have worked with educational interests in Marietta, Ohio and in West Virginia to meet some of the demand.

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