Matt Christensen’s role as a Head of Conservation for Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) involves the coordination of both securement and stewardship within BC. 

Matt grew up in the boreal forest of northern Alberta and followed in the footsteps of his dad and uncle by working in the natural resources sector. While conducting environmental assessments for oil and gas developments, he had a profound realization.

“I was literally documenting all the plants and other species that we saw and writing a report because – it took me a while, I was naïve – they will be gone, and it will never be like this again. Soon after I had that realization, I went to the non-profit sector where I’ve been working ever since.”

The mandate of Ducks Unlimited Canada is to conserve, restore and manage wetlands and associated habitats for the benefit of North America’s waterfowl. In doing so, these wetland habitats also benefit other wildlife, as well as people.

“We need more wetlands! For water security, for fighting wildfires, for the fish, for the birds, for the amphibians. Wetlands are essential for biodiversity and ecosystem health. We’re experiencing droughts and increased wildfire seasons, so the more we can hold water in place, the better.”

Under the umbrella of land securement, Matt’s role includes working with the Province to develop new protected areas, Wildlife Management Areas, conservancies or Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCA’s), and establishing Conservation Agreements. Not only do these land designations protect habitats, they also provide security for investing in water control infrastructure.

A province-wide initiative that DUC is working on is assessing the feasibility of removing some of their infrastructure and leaving the wetland creation and preservation work to the beavers, or to beaver dam analogues (human-made dams). When DUC created all these wetlands – usually in places where there was originally a wetland that had been drained – the organization was filling a role that beavers used to fill, before they were trapped to extirpation in many areas.

Now that beaver populations have rebounded, Matt says the question is: “Does DUC need to do that same role of creating and maintaining wetlands, or can we shift what we are doing? One of our biggest costs for managing the infrastructure of all the wetlands that we built, is that beavers go in and plug up the culvert that we put in, which helps regulate the flow, and then we have to go in and pull it out, because the safety regulations for the dams require us to. But what if we just took out our infrastructure and left it? Then the beavers could do their thing.”

Matt explains that this focus began when he was working with the Mowachaht / Muchalaht First Nation on the west coast of Vancouver Island, who were interested in restoring their watersheds after extensive logging. With much less water in the watershed, the salmon populations were under serious threat.   

“They had noted a few recent occurrences of beavers, so began wondering: Were there beavers there previously, and are there beavers there now? And how do you get that knowledge? They want to protect all these core watersheds that are remaining and use beavers to facilitate that, so that the water stays in the watershed and supports salmon populations.”

Matt explains that they adapted a tool from Utah State University which brings in vegetation and elevation, stream location, and flow data to predict where beavers might have been. Historical vegetation is compared with the present vegetation to predict where beavers would be now; for example, in a more deciduous forest community – depending on what the post-logging vegetation looks like.  

“The tool helps us to identify areas where we can install beaver dam analogues and facilitate that restoration. At DUC, we saw a lot of opportunity and promise, and since then we’ve been scaling out that model for the whole province, to see where else we can work with beavers. We start by doing an overlay: here’s all this great habitat for beavers, and here’s where all the DUC projects are, so maybe we can get rid of some of our infrastructure and rely more on beavers.”

For this work, DUC has been partnering with the BC Wildlife Federation (BCWF) and other partners like the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

Recent research looking at the impacts of wildfires is discovering through satellite data that wherever there are beaver dams, wildfires were stopped. The dams hold the water in place, creating a wetland that is able to stay wet even through a hot and dry summer.

Matt sees considerable potential for DUC working in the Kootenays and beyond, with partner organizations, enhancing beaver populations in ways that aren’t going to create human-wildlife conflicts.

“Especially in areas like the Kootenays that are experiencing very hot and dry summers, how can we address drought and wildfire risk by putting more wetlands on the landscape?”

Matt is especially excited about working with Kootenay Conservation Program partners throughout the East and West Kootenay.

“I find events like the Fall Gathering to be so invigorating. Everyone is in good spirits and really collaborative, ready to work together and get things done. The networking is incredible. I love being part of the Securement Committee and having a reason to get to the Kootenays. Also, I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned for other parts of BC from what’s happening in the Kootenays. For example, with Local Conservation Funds and how they are implemented, the amount of public support there is for it, as well as the Partnership support.”

Matt sees vast potential for an innovative conservation financing program, like the Local Conservation Fund (LCF) model, being applied elsewhere in BC, including the Lower Mainland. He hopes to do more outreach work about the successes of the LCF model and how it could be implemented on the coast.

Matt is also excited about a recent collaboration between DUC and BC Parks that resulted in the expansion of Burges James Gadsden Park in Moberly, west of Golden.

To produce the restoration plan for the park, there was a wider collaboration with Norm Allard, the BC Parks Foundation, and BC Parks. They are also partnering with the Golden District Rod & Gun Club, whose land is adjacent to the park, and Matt envisions signage at the park explaining the connections between hunting and DUC. 

DUC would like to expand their Rancher Partnership Program into the Kootenays, by working directly with ranchers to steward and protect species at risk habitat, enhance biodiversity, and increase carbon sequestration. 

They are also very interested in protecting more of the Columbia Wetlands, by trying to acquire some remaining private lands in the wetlands and conserving these areas in Wildlife Management Areas (WMA’s) or another appropriate designation. Matt is currently working on potential conservation agreements in the Columba Wetlands.