In the middle of French Creek, a river virtually unchanged since the days of George Washington, you’ll find a 42-acre island where the grating “kraaak” of the great blue heron can be heard as she stands on the weedy shoal.
Fette Island, donated to The Nature Conservancy by Mr. and Mrs. John Fette, is one of the largest islands in the river. Its limited accessibility has spared the island from conversion to agricultural uses and has protected the towering silver maples and sycamores that help prevent run-off and sedimentation into French Creek.
This relatively unaltered island remains important habitat for wrens, osprey and bald eagles while helping to protect the aquatic habitat for the rare and endangered aquatic species living in the ripples below the island.
Like much of the Mystic Valley portion of French Creek, the waters around Fette Island are home to a range of freshwater mussels, including the endangered northern riffleshell and clubshell. These two species are critically imperiled, having been lost from more than 95 percent of their historic ranges. But their beds in French Creek have gone largely undisturbed for thousands of years and could be a source for future mussel repopulation in recovering rivers.
Swimming among these mussels are rare fish found only in a handful of Pennsylvania rivers, along with the largest species of North American salamanders, the hellbender. Measuring up to 29 inches long, the hellbender thrives in the clean waters of French Creek and hunts crayfish along the island’s edge.
The Nature Conservancy has been active in the French Creek watershed since 1991 and works with various partners to protect both the Pennsylvania and New York portions of this extraordinary river. Nature Conservancy scientists are monitoring the health and populations of French Creek mussels with the hope of saving at-risk populations in other river systems.
What You'll See
A wide variety of freshwater mussels and darters, including the Tippecanoe darter, which is found only in the French Creek and upper Allegheny River systems. Numerous aquatic insects, reptiles and amphibians, including hellbenders. Birds, including American bittern, least bittern, black tern, short-eared owl, sedge wren, marsh wren, osprey and bald eagle.
Although the Nature Conservancy has protected Fette Island, the waters of French Creek are still threatened by water pollution, including runoff from poorly planned development elsewhere along French Creek. Other threats include dams and stream channel alteration, invasion by non-native species, as well as unsustainable agricultural and forestry practices.
Throughout French Creek, the Nature Conservancy is mapping mussel populations and determining best approaches for the reintroduction and relocation of rare mussels. On the river’s edge the Nature Conservancy is engaging farmers in sustainable agricultural practices that protect water quality and is working with government partners to identify areas of high risk for hazardous spills and runoff that could impact or destroy critical aquatic habitat. We are working with partners like the French Creek Valley Conservancy and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to protect the most important floodplain and streamside buffer lands.
The cool, clear waters of Fette Island provide habitat for riffleshell and clubshell mussels, as well as a primeval landscape, with a floodplain forest that acts as a natural filter.
Fette Island is 42 acres, likely the largest island in French Creek. The river flows for 117 miles and has a watershed encompassing 1,235 square miles.
Fette Island is about four miles downriver of the Mill Village area in Erie County. French Creek originates in Chataqua County, New York, and flows through Erie, Crawford, Mercer and Venango counties in Pennsylvania before emptying into the Allegheny River at Franklin.
French Creek offers excellent canoeing, kayaking and boating, as well as fishing and wildlife watching.