The Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1990 to protect, conserve, and restore habitat for wildlife native to the river's floodplain. The refuge consists of twenty-two islands and four mainland tracts scattered along 362 miles of the upper Ohio River. Most of the refuge's 3440 acres of land and underwater habitat are located in West Virginia; however, Pennsylvania and Kentucky each have two refuge islands.
The refuge is important in conserving the "wild" Ohio within one of our nation's busiest inland waterways. Refuge islands are gradually returning to forested conditions after years of farming, oil and gas extraction, and other activities. The refuge works to protect wildlife and habitats native to the Ohio River and its floodplain. Migratory birds and endangered freshwater mussels are among the important wildlife emphasized on the refuge.
The Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1990 under authority of the Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956, and was the first Refuge in West Virginia. The Refuge currently consists of all or part of 22 islands and four mainland units encompassing 3,440 acres of valuable fish and wildlife habitat within one of the nation's busiest waterways. As acquisition progresses, the Refuge may include up to 35 river islands. The acquisition focus area stretches nearly 400 river miles from Shippingport, Pennsylvania to Maysville, Kentucky and includes four states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky).
The island habitats of the upper Ohio River contain near natural assemblages of plants and animals that are endemic to the river. The distribution of bottomland andhabitats, and deep and shallow water aquatic habitats, make these areas extremely beneficial to fish and wildlife species. A huge diversity of species (waterfowl, shore and wading birds, neotropical 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.
The Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge is committed to the preservation and enhancement of a quality river environment for the people of the Ohio River Valley. In this pursuit, we will work with partners to provide a wide range of environmental education programs and promote high quality wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities, to build a refuge support base and attract new visitors. Just as the Ohio River is an important corridor for transporting people and goods, it is also an important natural corridor for migratory birds, fish, and endangered freshwater mussels. Encouraging an understanding and appreciation for the "wild" Ohio will be a focus of the refuge for generations to come.
The Ohio River is rich in history, and many areas of historical and cultural significance are located on or adjacent to the islands. Lands encompassing the refuge include traditional homelands of the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Delaware, Peoria, Seneca, Wyandotte, Ojibwe, Cherokee, and Miami peoples. Contemporarily, the area is noteworthy for early explorers' accounts of Native Americans and their culture, George Washington's survey expeditions, the use of the river as a major transportation route by early settlers and pioneers heading west, battles fought during the Civil War, and finally, use for navigation and industry.
The islands in the river 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.