Tag Archives: allegheny river

The Great Hill People of the Beautiful River and Their Conservation Efforts

This story is a part of the Native American Blog Series in observance of National Native American Heritage.

The Seneca Nation of Indians are the “Keepers of the Western Door” and are called the “Great Hill People” or “O-non-dowa-gah” in their own language. The Seneca people are culturally attached to their ancestral lands, and call the Allegheny River the “Ohi’yo” which translates into “beautiful river”. The Ohi’yo or Allegheny River joins the Monongahela River to form the Ohio River, which then the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi River. To many Seneca Native Americans, the Allegheny River and its connections are simply called Ohi’yo  River no matter what region it is in.

seneca territory

Currently, the Seneca Nation of Indians holds 53,884 acres of Tribal lands within two territories: the Allegany and the Cattaraugus, as well as the Oil Springs Reservation which is 640 acres in the state of New York.  Photo Credit: eSpatially New York, 2015

The Seneca Nation of Indians has a robust wildlife program and is undertaking many projects to protect and restore fish and wildlife cultural important to their people.  In 2015, the Seneca Nation of Indians were awarded Federal funding for a project titled “Conservation Management” through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tribal Wildlife Grant (TWG) program. The goal of the project is to increase stream and shoreline restoration within the Cattaraugus Creek, to benefit sacred fish species including the brook trout and steelhead fish. According to Seneca oral histories, the Great Spirit had caught and admired the beauty of the brook trout. The Great Spirit’s touch turned the black ebony color of the trout into silvery spots and halos. Since the brook trout had been handled by the Great Spirit and spared for its beauty to live on, the Seneca Nation of Indians do not eat brook trout, but hold it as sacred in the highest regard of fish (Indian Legend received by Larry Becelia).

Additionally, a freshwater hatchery in Cattaraugus Territory, which will also serve as an educational center for the community, is being created under management of Greg Lay, Fish and Wildlife Department for the Seneca Indian Nation. The hatchery will be used for Eastern brook trout. The Seneca Nation provides power to both facilities using solar panels and other sustainable methods.

Another project the Seneca Nation of Indians is working on is to stabilize the walleye population, which is a fish that is both a culturally significant and a subsistence food for the Seneca Nation of Indians, through establishment of a fish rearing facility in the Allegany territory. The rearing facility is managed by Shane Titus, the Fishery’s Manager and and Larry Becelia, the Conservation Manager of Seneca Nation of Indians Fish and Wildlife Department. The highland Strain of Walleye (adult male and females) are caught from the Allegany Reservoir during spawning season using an electroshocking boat. After the reproductive materials have been collected by the caught adults, they are released further up the Allegany River. This location is chosen in hopes that mature walleye will stay up river and spawn in the future to increase the upstream population. When the walleye fry hatch in the rearing facility, they are released where the Allegany reservoir and Allegany River meet.


Larry Becelia, Conservation Manager  of the Seneca Nation Fish and Wildlife Department holding a walleye.

The Seneca Nation Fish and Wildlife Department has also established a research program, in which walleye females that were caught, held, and released from the facility are tagged with URL links, identification numbers, and QR codes. This system is used in the hopes that future anglers can log the individual fish into the system and see where it has traveled on the map. One example of this form of “citizen science” was encountered when a fisherman caught a walleye female all the way in Pennsylvania! The Seneca Nation of Indians have also built a stocking pond near the facility for catch and release fishing of walleye, to ensure that traditional fishing activities are available for the Tribal community.



Shane and Larry also organize a youth program in the summer to create artificial habitat for fish. Eleven- to sixteen-year olds use recycled vinyl siding, quick cement, and pipes to create a resting place for spawning fish. Using grant funds, the Seneca Nation of Indians have also been able to order large boulders to be placed into the freshwater system to provide resting pools for fish. Photo Credit: Zintkala Eiring

In addition, the Seneca Nation of Indians is in partnership with Cornell University and the State of New York to research the chytrid disease in the eastern hellbender, a protected species of large salamander. Several individuals with the disease were unable to be cured, and thus, are unable to be released back into their natural system. Currently, the SNI resource managers, Shane and Titus, continue to take care of a handful of eastern hellbenders. Fortunately, several hellbenders without the chytrid disease were able to be released into their natural environment in the summer of 2017.

The O-non-dawa-gah or Seneca people have been conserving their lands for thousands of years. Through the tribal wildlife grants program, they continue to demonstrate their ancestral ties to the Ohi’yo River and its wildlife inhabitants, as well as the protection of species through their hatchery, stream-bank restoration projects, and species recovery programs. Tribal environmental managers pass on their traditional ecological knowledge and conservation skillset to Seneca youth each summer, so generations can continue O-non-dawa-gah traditions into the future.

The Seneca Indian Nation’s conservation management projects were made possible by the dedication and efforts of the Seneca Nation of Indians, other partnerships, and the Tribal Wildlife Grants program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Tribal wildlife grants are funded through an annual appropriation from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. These grants have awarded more than $77 million to Tribes since 2003, which provide support for approximately 444 conservation projects throughout Indian Country. For more information about tribal wildlife grants please visit https://www.fws.gov/northeast/nativeamerican/index.html

Mussels making moves for water quality

Beneath the surface of the water, embedded in the bottom of rivers and estuaries lie thousands of little suspension-feeding bivalves called freshwater mussels. They are a fascinating group, with a unique role in our freshwater ecosystems. The presence of mussels benefits all the life around them, and in return, they receive a little help from their fishy friends.

Freshwater mussel diversity, J. Butler/USFWS

Mussels begin their life in an unusual fashion with males releasing gametes into the river to an awaiting female. The female captures these through normal filter-feeding; her eggs are then fertilized in special “brood chambers” in the gills called marsupia. Once fertilized, a female mussel will carry her developing larvae for several months. For the larvae to complete metamorphosis, however, the female mussel must attract an unsuspecting fishy host. With her flashy mantle tissue, she puts on a show, and the performances are impeccable!

Like an improvisational dancer, disguised as some delicious food item – black fly larvae or other insect larvae, a small minnow, or perhaps a crayfish-

undulating and waving in the water, she captivates her audience.

Or like an expert fly fisherman, she casts out a delicious lure. (Barnhart, M. C.  2008. Unio Gallery)

When the fish approaches, she expels her parasitic larvae at the unsuspecting fish, where they get lodged in the fish’s gills. The young mussels drop to the river bottom after a few weeks, with no harm to the fish. This is where the real magic happens!

There’s more to these fish-charming bivalves than their underwater showmanship, they also take out the trash, clean the water and stabilize the foundation of the community for all the other aquatic critters living near them. Indeed, freshwater mussels play an important role in engineering the ecosystem. Like cobbles and rocks, they help stabilize the river bottom during high flows. And they help aerate sediments with their movements. But these shells aren’t just pretty rocks; they’ve got gills and guts! By recycling nutrients into the food web they provide food for other aquatic life, while also creating habitat.

Freshwater mussels are also one of nature’s greatest natural filtration systems. “A single freshwater mussel typically filters 5 to 10 gallons of water per day, 365 days a year” reports Dr. Danielle Kreeger, Science Director for the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary. She added, “Since healthy mussel beds can contain tens of thousands of mussels per acre, they function like natural water treatment plants that help keep the water clear and remove many types of pollutants.” Imagine 10,000 mussels filtering 10,000 gallons of water a day. Now imagine all that happening over 300 miles in a river such as the Allegheny or the Susquehanna or the James. 

By feeding on microscopic particles that cause turbidity, freshwater mussels remove vast quantities of algae, bacteria, nitrogen, phosphorus and other chemical compounds in the river. And what they don’t use is repackaged into little organic baskets of food for organisms like aquatic insects, which are valuable food items for fish, or aquatic fungi that facilitate decomposition processes in the river. Put it all together, and where there are mussels, you find more aquatic insects and more fish and better water quality. 

Tangerine and gilt darters near Dromedary pearl mussel (Dromus dromas) in a bed of other mussel species. Credit: Rachel Mair/USFWS

Win-win for freshwater mussel conservation

I'm Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You'll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York. USFWS photo with Bethany holding a bog turtle

I’m Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You’ll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York.

“Halftime!” I yelled as my watch hit 3:52 pm. The divers in the stream look up at me, nod, and resume their underwater search along the mucky creek bed.
Would you ever consider freshwater mussel surveys and the sport of football to have similar strategies? I didn’t, until I observed a mussel survey first-hand. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in their freshwater mussel surveys in the tributaries to the Upper Allegheny River region to determine if mussels exist in the stream, if so, what kind of mussels, and if they are rare or endangered mussels.

Mussels play a very important role in an aquatic ecosystem; they act as a water purifier as they filter the water for food. Unfortunately, increased sedimentation, pollution, and exotic species like zebra mussels have contaminated the tributaries of the Upper Allegheny River, leaving mussels imperiled. Several freshwater mussel species are now federally-listed as an endangered species because their populations have dwindled as a result of the adverse stream conditions.


Gearing up for the survey.

The game plan.

  • Search for and identify freshwater mussels in the streambed (the arena).
  • Biologists start by flagging the boundaries of their survey area (their field).
  • The survey area is equally divided among the biologists (coaches), who survey their section, called a cell, using snorkel equipment (gear), looking for freshwater mussels (players).
  • Once a mussel is found, it is placed in a mesh bag that the biologists carry on their backs as they swim, keeping the mussels cool and underwater.
  • Biologists are warned at “halftime,” and then again after one hour and 15 minutes when “time” is called. Much like football, the survey is timed so that one stream is not given more attention than another.

Check out this clip of one of the biologists diving to capture the mussels!


  • The biologists convene and separate the mussels by cell, then identify and record each by species.
  • The length of every mussel is measured and recorded.
  • Finally, the mussels are carefully placed back in the sediment where they were found by digging a shallow hole and placing the mussel “foot”-side down. The mussel will eventually burrow deeper into the sediment.

Just like every football player has statistics that denote how well they play, biologists collect mussel data that tell us the health of the mussel population and its habitat. Like coaches, biologists use this information to make important conservation decisions. For example, if a biologist notices a particular freshwater mussel species is declining, they can pass legislation under the Endangered Species Act that will help protect the species, like the Clubshell mussel and the recently listed Rayed bean (Endangered).

Biologists hope for healthy mussels within a functional stream ecosystem, just as coaches hope for strong, healthy and successful football players. Freshwater mussel surveys and football games help determine who those star players/species are, and which ones need a little help, which is why mussel surveys are important for freshwater mussel conservation. The data will be used to make important conservation management decisions that will ultimately protect freshwater mussel species and the health of our waterways (Touchdown!).

Even though mussel surveying and football are two completely different activities, we can see that the goals of conservation and sports are not so far off after all.