French Creek Watershed

The French Creek watershed harbors more fish and mussel species than any other stream in the state.

French Creek, which could accurately be described as an old-growth river because of the low level of manmade disturbance it has seen, may hold the key to restoring rare populations of animals into other parts of the Ohio river system.

Along its 117 miles, from western New York across northwestern Pennsylvania, the river is home to more than 28 freshwater mussel species, including 13 that are listed as endangered in Pennsylvania and the federally endangered northern riffleshell and clubshell. These two species are critically imperiled, having lost more than 95 percent of their historic range.

Freshwater mussels are vulnerable to changes in their surroundings. But their habitats in French Creek – still occupied by individuals of varying ages, some 60- to 70-years-old – may have gone largely undisturbed for thousands of years.

Other parts of the Ohio river system, where the same mussels once were abundant, have not fared as well. French Creek, as well as parts of the Allegheny River, are now seen as a conservation refuge for species that could be reintroduced in other parts of the river system. Reintroduced mussels would benefit the river by cleansing the water as they filter it to feed themselves.

French Creek also supports rare fish found in only a handful of other rivers, including Longhead Darter and Spotted Darter. The hellbender, Pennsylvania ’s largest salamander, inhabits French Creek as well, feasting on crayfish, yet another pollution-sensitive family of animals.

River originates in Chataqua County, New York, and flows for 117 miles through Erie, Crawford, Mercer and Venango counties in Pennsylvania before emptying into the Allegheny River at Franklin.

River flows for 117 miles; watershed encompasses 1,235 square miles.

Water pollution, including runoff from poorly planned development. Dams and stream channel alteration. Invasion by non-native species. Unsustainable agricultural and forestry practices.

Working with interested landowners to preserve sensitive riparian forests through conservation easements and other land protection methods. Determining best approaches for the reintroduction and relocation of rare mussels. Due to its high integrity, using French Creek to define reference conditions for comparing and restoring other river systems.

The Nature Conservancy has been active in the Pennsylvania portion of the French Creek watershed since helping the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC) acquire land near Lake Pleasant in 1995. (The Central and Western New York chapter began work in its part of the watershed in 1991.)  

The Conservancy works with various partners to protect both the Pennsylvania and New York portions of this extraordinary watershed.

Most recently, the Conservancy has formed the French Creek Joint Venture with WPC and the French Creek Valley Conservancy, a local conservation organization, to increase our efficiency and effectiveness. The Joint Venture targets land critical to the ecological functions of French Creek, including riparian and floodplain areas.




Fette Island is one of the largest islands in French Creek, a major tributary of the Allegheny River, and remains relatively inaccessible to development.


The Forests and Freshwater Connection

Watch this video to understand the connection between preserving our forests and fresh drinking water.

What You’ll See
Twenty-eight species of freshwater mussel. A wide variety of darters, including the Tippecanoe darter, found nowhere else in Pennsylvania except French Creek and the upper Allegheny River. Numerous aquatic insects, reptiles and amphibians, including hellbenders, which are Pennsylvania’s largest salamanders. Birds, including American bittern, least bittern, black tern, short-eared owl, sedge wren, marsh wren, osprey and bald eagle. Plants of special concern, including rush aster, cuckooflower, vanilla sweet grass and Beck’s water marigold.

Did You Know?
Pennsylvania is home to 50 species of orchids. To learn about one of the largest plant families found at preserves like French Creek, download our Orchid Fact Sheet.

Find great creeks to paddle in French Creek Project’s canoeing guide (please e-mail us at for a copy). The area also offers many other opportunities for boating, as well as fishing, hunting, hiking, wildlife watching and other nature-based activities.

E-mail the Pennsylvania chapter for French Creek Project’s canoeing guide at


Take the Meadville exit (147-A) from I-79, which directs you east on U.S. Route 322. Remain on Route 322 and you will pass through three lights and then cross the Smock Memorial Bridge. Bear left on the bridge and you will enter the Meadville Arterial Highway. At the third light after the bridge, turn right onto Arch Street. Follow Arch Street for three lights, turning left at the third light onto Park Avenue. Go one block on Park Avenue to a light at Chestnut Street and turn right. The French Creek office is on the left at 301 Chestnut Street.


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