The Ohio River's islands represent a legacy of the end of the last ice age. Glacial melt-waters carried sand and gravel far from their places of origin, forming the core of today's islands. Although Native Americans lived along the Ohio River for thousands of years, major changes to the river and its islands did not occur until the arrival of European settlers 200 years ago. The most drastic change resulted from construction of modern dams in the last century. A wild-free flowing river, too shallow to navigate much of the year, evolved into a year-round corridor of commerce and industry. Over 40% of historic island acreage disappeared, some simply covered by water, others dredged away or used as sites for dam construction.
Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge marked another change on the river when it was established in 1990. A decade earlier, biologists recognized that the river retained some remarkable wild attributes that needed protection or restoration to ensure their future. The river's improved water quality in recent decades attracted wildlife as well as people. Recreational impacts, dredging for sand and gravel, and other activities threatened what remained of the wild Ohio. With cooperation from The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased eight islands to establish the refuge. Today, that number has grown to 22 islands and four mainland tracts.
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Forty six species of native freshwater mussels live within the refuge waters on the Ohio River. This includes five federally endangered mussel species: fanshell, pink mucket, sheepnose, northern riffleshell, and clubshell. Mussels are important to the health of a river ecosystem. They are filter feeders, which helps reduce silt, sediment, and pollutants in the water.