WILLIAMSTOWN, W.Va.— As the Ohio River became cleaner in the 1980s, thanks to legislation like the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, wildlife started to return, leading to an interest in protecting the river and its islands, and in 1990, the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect, conserve and restore habitat for wildlife native to the river.
According to Michael Schramm, visitor services manager for the refuge, migrating birds, such as great blue herons, began nesting once more on the islands, many of which were once used for farming, though dams built on the river made it impossible to continue farming.
“People hadn’t seen a heron here for a long time before that. Now, they’re pretty common,” Schramm says. “Because of that, people started getting interested in protecting the islands. The islands were becoming sort of this unused real estate, wildlife was reclaiming them, and so people had the idea of protecting them.”
Though originally established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for migratory birds and other waterfowl, one wildlife biologist at the refuge became interested in mussels. About 70 percent of mussel species are either threatened or endangered, compared with 12 percent of birds.
Forty-seven species of native freshwater mussels live within refuge waters, including eight endangered mussel species, such as snuffbox, clubshell, and purple cat’s paw pearly mussel, and the refuge started orienting more toward mussel conservation, Schramm says.
“Very few people had really studied mussels in-depth, and mussels are in crisis,” Schramm says. “People aren’t very aware of mussels because you don’t see them, but they’re really important to the river ecosystem; they’re the base of the food chain, they clean the water, and they’re really good animals to have around.”
Attracting an estimated 90,000 visitors each year, the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge also protects the islands themselves, which, along with the Ohio River, are geologically unique, Schramm says.
Ohio River among the world's most ecologically diverse
Having been around since the Appalachian Mountains formed millions of years ago, the Ohio River is one of the oldest in the world and formed from separate rivers during the Ice Age.
“That’s important because it means all of that separate biodiversity (from) each one of those rivers that evolved suddenly got fused into one river,” Schramm says. “It’s a really biodiverse river.”
As the glaciers were melting and retreating 20,000 years ago, swift water flowed through the valley that had formed with enough energy to move gravel, cobbles, and boulders, forming the basis of the Ohio River islands.
“The sandbars that formed in the rivers, which were underwater at the time, today are the islands you see in the river. Those are Ice Age sandbars, and they’re made up of this gravel and cobble that doesn’t really happen in the river anymore,” Schramm says. “Once they erode, they’re gone forever. The only thing that’s going to rebuild those islands is another ice age.”
Protecting the islands is important, as they are essential for mussels, which live in the sandbars and gravel beds surrounding the islands. They’re also a good habitat for migrating birds, as the majority of the Ohio River floodplain consists of farm fields, railroad tracks, towns, and industry.
Ohio River Islands are Noah's Arks for wilderness and forest
“The islands are like little Noah’s Arks of wilderness and riparian forest,” Schramm says. “It’s important to protect them because they’re important habitat, and it’s important because they can’t be rebuilt. There’s no way to artificially build them.”
Today, there are more than 40 islands in the Ohio River between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, though historically that number was greater, Schramm says. Many of them have dissolved and eroded away to nothing or are underwater. The Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge owns 22 of those islands and will purchase more later this year.
“We have the authority to keep buying the islands; we can buy 35 of the 40 if they were ever to become available,” says Schramm. “So the size of the refuge is not fixed.”
Because the river is so high and used by barges and motorboaters on a daily basis, which can be destructive, it does not take long for islands to erode or dissolve. To try and combat this, the Wildlife Refuge surrounds islands with boulders, called riprap, that break up the wakes of boats.
“It’s out from the shore of the island, and it has gaps in it, and that allows wildlife to come and go off the island without the riprap getting in the way,” Schramm says.
When the river floods, the sediment on the interior side of the riprap flows down, and the sediment drops out of it. Now it’s forming beaches behind the riprap, which is good for turtles to lay their eggs, says Schramm.
“It’s a good erosion buffer as well, so it’s not the same thing the island was made of originally; it’s not cobble and gravel like it should be,” he says. “If we took out that riprap, it would dissolve away really quickly. But as long as it’s there, it prevents the wakes of these boats from hitting the actual bank of the island and eroding it anymore. It’s a really effective way to prevent erosion, and it’s useful for habitat for wildlife.”
As the islands are imperiled, it’s important to continue supporting agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other environmental organizations helping clean the river, Schramm says, as well as protecting regulations like the Clean Water Act.
“Those are all really important entities, and if those went away, it would be a field day for anyone who wants to exploit the environment here and mess things up,” he says.
“Supporting that kind of policy and legislation is super important because if anyone cares about the environment, they have to care about regulations. They have a positive effect, and that’s easy to quantify in terms of the abundance of wildlife in the area and the health of the organisms that live in the river.”
Kayakers who visit all 22 islands are eligible for prizes
In addition to protecting the Ohio River islands and their wildlife, the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge has an abundance of recreation opportunities, including hiking trails and kayaking opportunities, like the Kayak Challenge: if visitors kayak to all 22 islands, take a selfie at a specific destination on each, and turn them in to Schramm, they receive a special prize. It’s a fun way to get people out visiting the islands, he says.
“It’s not just about making habitat for wildlife. It’s about connecting people to what’s here as well,” says Schramm. “Visiting the refuge is another important thing people can do to support the refuge.”