By Dave Payne Sr.
There just aren’t as many islands on the Ohio River as there used to be, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say.
That’s one of the reasons the USFWS founded the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge in 1990, to preserve floodplain habitat for many species of animals and plants, several species of which are endangered or threatened.
The refuge is comprised of 20 islands from Shippingport, PA to Manchester, OH (on the Kentucky border). Sixteen of these islands are located in West Virginia, whose boundary extends to the historic low water mark on the Ohio side of the river.
The refuge seeks to preserve the last remnants of floodplain habitat, which characterized the area before the arrival of European explorers.
Forty-five species of mussel, 50 species of native fish call the refuge home and 200 species of migratory birds can be found throughout the year.
Located on one of the world’s most scenic rivers and nation’s busiest waterways, the refuge is not only important for resident animals, but many species of migratory birds, who use the river as a highway, stopping sometimes to rest and feed on the islands.
“They (migratory birds) have to stop and eat like anybody else,” Janet Butler, outdoor recreation planner for the Parkersburg, WVa.- based refuge, said.
Most of this riverine habitat has been cleared to make way for agriculture, and industrial, commercial, residential and urban expansion. Much of the island habitat has also disappeared for commercial shipping.
In the early 1900’s there were 49 islands in the West Virginia stretch of the river alone. By the 1980s, 14 of those were eroded away or flooded forever when dams raised the water level for shipping.
Today’s Ohio River looks nothing like the untamed, free-flowing river it was a few centuries ago. The river, once characterized by shallow stretches and fast-moving shoals, is much deeper than it once was. Since the refuge boundaries extend to the historic low water mark, much of their property is underwater, bringing many aquatic species into their umbrella of protection.
One of the refuge’s goals is to preserve mussel habitat in underwater gravel beds. Two endangered species of mussels, the pink mucket pearly and the fanshell, live here. The riverbeds and islands are comprised of sand and gravel, deposited here by glacier melts after the last ice age.
Although the areas alongside the islands, as well as 2,000 feet upriver and 2,000 feet downriver are off limits to dredging, local gravel mining still causes Butler concern.
“A lot of animals depend on that sand and gravel to live in,” she said. “There’s only so much of it and when it’s gone, it’s gone.” Replenishing gravel deposits won’t occur until the end of the next ice age, which Butler said not to expect for the next several thousand years.
Besides disappearing gravel, the mussels have a far more serious and immediate threat: competing with a rampant non-native pest, the zebra mussel, so named for the stripes on its shell.
The zebra mussel was first documented in a tributary of the Ural River in the Caspian Sea basin of Russia. As freshwater shipping increased throughout Europe on rivers and newly constructed canals during the 19th century, they spread throughout Europe.
The first known sighting of zebra mussels in America was in Lake St. Clair, the smallest of the Great Lakes, located between Lakes Huron and Erie. Scientists believe the mussels were unknowingly transported in the freshwater ballast of a transoceanic ship. By the early 1990s, the pest had made its way into the Ohio.
But native populations of mussels were already in decline even before the onslaught of these striped competitors, having not yet rebounded from strains put on it by the commercial button industry.
“Pearl” buttons, punched out of mussel shells were extremely popular during the first half of the 20th century and the Ohio River mussels supplied much of the world’s demand. “Pearl” button factories were located along the river in many places, including Paden City and Sistersville in West Virginia. Mussel hunters harvested thousands of tons of mussels until cheaper plastic button eliminated demand in the 1950s.
Many mussels are still harvested today, many illegally, for their delicate meat or for their shells, which are ground into beads and shipped to Japan for its freshwater pearl industry.
Oysters make pearls by covering an abrasive grain of sand, which irritates it, with layers of minerals. Commercial pearl growers use the beads in much the same way as nature uses sand, by inserting them into the shell of special pearl-producing freshwater mussels. These beads make for larger, less flawed pearls than naturally occurring ones.
Refuge officials often dive to monitor the native populations, as well as assess the numbers of non-native competitors, like the zebra mussel and Asiatic clam. Recently, they’ve noticed a dramatic decline in the zebra mussel population.
“We’ve seen a decline from about 20,000 per square meter to about 100,” Butler said. “We can thank high flow conditions in 2000 for (the zebra mussel decline).”
High flow conditions make it difficult for zebra mussel larvae to grow into adults. “It’s essentially a lake species,” Morrison said.
While Butler said the zebra mussel decline would give the fragile native mussel populations a reprieve, she admitted that she wasn’t sure to what extent the native mussel populations could recover or how long the trend would continue. “We hope (native mussels) will be able to regain some of their energy reserves they lost as the zebra mussels were starving them out.”
The refuge works to protect terrestrial species, also. Other endangered and threatened species that live on the islands are the bald eagle, peregrine falcon and Indiana bat. They also work to control populations of non-native plant species, like Japanese knotweed, which choke many native trees on the refuge. They also install hundreds of nesting boxes, many of them built by volunteers, for birds.
During the spring, refuge personnel conduct a breeding survey to determine which species nest on the islands and band wood ducks to track their movement. Officials have identified at least 25 species of waterfowl using the islands, including loons, swans and many types of ducks.
They’ve also been monitoring birds-of-prey populations, like that of the osprey and bald eagle, both of which have made a remarkable comeback.
Attempts to reintroduce the osprey, which disappeared from the area in the early 20th century, have been quite successful, Butler said. In the late 1980s, the Wildlife Enhancement Committee from Dupont, a company which operates a large chemical facility on the Ohio River in Wood County, WVa., in cooperation with the West Virginia DNR obtained some osprey chicks from the Mid-Atlantic Coast.
They raised these chicks in special cages where they were reared without ever seeing their human caregivers. Once they had matured, they were released into the wild. Once grown, osprey fly to South and Central America for a couple of years, then return to nest. Refuge officials have spotted a steady increase of nesting pairs along the river.
This year has also been a banner year for the bald eagle, refuge biologist Patty Morrison said, as several of them have been spotted along the river.
The islands provide a place for the public to enjoy wildlife. Only Middle Island, however, is connected to the shore by bridge. The rest can be reached only by boat.
The refuge encourages people to enjoy the islands, provided their activities don’t interfere with its main goal, protecting wildlife. Wildlife observation, photography, fishing, environmental education and hunting are permitted on most of the islands, camping, overnight boat mooring, woodcutting, mowing, building permanent structures (like tree stands for hunting), dumping and collecting artifacts are prohibited.
The refuge is also gearing up to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge System founding in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt set aside Florida’s Pelican Island as a bird refuge. The system today includes 520 refuges, spanning nearly 100 million acres of prime habitat.
The refuge plans to hold several events, an Earth Day celebration, migratory bird day, kids’ fishing clinic, Ohio River Sweep, Butterfly Count, insect safari and a week-long celebration of the refuge to gear up for the centennial.
Hunting is permitted on refuge property except for Wheeling, and Crab Islands and the Buckley mainland, though special, strict regulations apply. Paden, Mill Creek, Middle, Neal, Captina Islands and the Captina and Buckley mainland tracts are open to archery deer only. Dogs may be used to retrieve migratory waterfowl, but must be leashed when not in use.