Area residents have a natural area protected in part by The Nature Conservancy right in their back yard, so to speak. It's the Ohio River Islands Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but it was established through a cooperative arrangement in which the Conservancy played a role.
One site in the refuge is Fish Creek Island in Marshall County.
Located in the waters of the Ohio River south of Moundsville, the 48-acre island was previously owned by CONSOL Energy Inc. CONSOL donated the island - a haven for rare great blue herons - to the Conservancy, the world's largest private conservation organization with more than 1 million members worldwide.
The donation was made as part of an effort to preserve the Western Allegheny Plateau Ecoregion - a 27 million-acre ecoregion encompassing parts of Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and New York. Large tracts of forest still remain in many parts of this region, and they contain numerous rivers and streams filled with diverse wildlife that make their way to the Ohio River. These species include waterfowl, shore and wading birds, neotropical migratory birds, wetland wildlife and freshwater fish and mussels.
"One of the most significant things about this island is that it is home to a great blue heron nesting colony," said Janet Butler, outdoor recreation planner for the Ohio River Island National Wildlife Refuge, a linked network of more than 12,000 acres of floodplain forests, wetlands and aquatic habitat stretching over 400 miles from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati. According to Butler, an inventory of the island has revealed a total of 86 nests there, although she reported the herons have shifted many of their nests because the island is also being used by campers. She explained that this is a concern because the birds typically don't do well when they must share close quarters with humans.
"I think the donation of this island will ensure the future for the great blue heron because it will not be developed," Butler said. She added that it will also be important to the conservation of other bird species and for freshwater wildlife. She explained a survey to determine the population of native freshwater mussels surrounding the island will be conducted.
Also, surveyors will check the level of zebra mussel infestation in the area. Zebra mussels are a non-native species.
All of these efforts are in keeping with the goal of the refuge, which is to fulfill the needs of fish, wildlife and plants that are native to "big river" ecosystems. The refuge is designed to serve as an anchor for biodiversity and as a model for habitat restoration throughout the Ohio River Valley ecosystem.
Butler said that while an 18-acre portion of Wheeling Island was donated to the Nature Conservancy a few years ago, the Fish Creek Island project was the first donation of land made to the agency by CONSOL Energy.
With several coal mining operations located throughout the Upper Ohio Valley, CONSOL is the largest producer of high-Btu bituminous coal in the United States and the largest exporter of U.S. coal. CONSOL has 26 mines in seven states and two provinces in Canada. CONSOL and its predecessor companies have been industry leaders in production, profitability, safety and environmental stewardship for more than 140 years.