Beavers Restoring Wetlands

On Salt Spring Island, humans and beavers are teaming up to rebuild a natural wetland habitat after decades of human damage

Natalia Nybida

Beavers restoring wetlands. Detail, "Let the beaver do the work," by Roger Peet, Justseeds Artists' Cooperative

Beavers restoring wetlands. Detail, "Let the beaver do the work," by Roger Peet of Justseeds Artists' Cooperative

Over the years, the Blackburn Lake ecosystem has gone through some dramatic changes. Despite these changes, the beavers have managed to remain in residence and maintain their way of life. In 2013, Salt Spring Island Conservancy purchased the Blackburn property with both conservancy and beavers restoring the land to its original wetland ecosystem.

The Blackburn Lake Beaver project is an ongoing study that began nine years ago, on the role of the beaver in the Cusheon Creek Watershed on central Salt Spring Island. Photographer and naturalist Simon Henson was given a rare opportunity to study and document the beavers as their landscape continued to change around them. Henson started to collect data and take photographs. And over the years, he started to really get to know what the beavers were doing there.

Once the conservancy purchased the property, the goal was to restore the existing the golf course back into a wetland ecosystem – the natural habitat surrounding the lake. “Beavers do that by nature,” says Henson “Their whole purpose is to develop and maintain wetland ecosystems. So here we had the two parties; you had the beavers that have been doing it there for centuries, and you had these new stewards of the property,” says Henson.

Development & disturbance

In 1907 the Blackburn lake area was sold to Alan Blackburn, who set out to establish a successful dairy farm. “Part of that work was to drain the wetlands to make pasture. That was the start of taking away the vital water the beavers used,” explains Henson.

Then in 1994, the property was developed into a golf course, with further drainage installed along with a series of boardwalks and bridges extending into the beaver habitat. The impact on the land would seem obvious, but during the remediation process the extent became clearer – from rubber membranes to prevent wild plants from growing to “truckloads and truckloads of sand to improve drainage” beneath the golfing greens.


Studying the various teeth-marks of the harvested branches to look for signs that the new kits have begun to feed outside of the resident lodge. The newborn kits’ teeth are smaller during the early months. | Photo: Simon Henson

Studying the various teeth-marks of the harvested branches to look for signs that the new kits have begun to feed outside of the resident lodge. The newborn kits’ teeth are smaller during the early months. | Photo: Simon Henson


Henson says, “the property left behind from the golf course was not beaverfriendly. They weren’t coming out into those areas. The fairways and the greens had dried up into grasslands most of the summer.” He explains that boardwalk are barriers to the beaver: “They couldn’t harvest, they couldn’t use water systems or canals or trails through those areas.”

Once the human-made barriers were removed, the beavers suddenly had access to the full system. Henson says there seemed to be a flurry in those early years of beaver activity, as soon as the drained-dry golf courses had been dug up and restored to the point where the groundwater would be maintained.

“That started the whole beaver project philosophy for me, which was to monitor the beavers through these changes. How did that affect their activities, their location, and what they did to that changing landscape,” says Henson.

Watching the beavers restoring wetlands. The main resident lodge situated amongst the vegetation on the edge of Blackburn Lake, showing some of the branches stored for winter food in the foreground | Photo: Simon Henson

The main resident lodge situated amongst the vegetation on the edge of Blackburn Lake, showing some of the branches stored for winter food in the foreground | Photo: Simon Henson

Charismatic beavers restoring wetlands

Often referred to as environmental engineers and wetland managers, beavers have an incredible ability to create new wetlands, restore native wetland, and improve habitat for a wide range of species.

In other areas where beavers have built ponds and access between creeks, researchers found the presence of fish has doubled and some old salmon creeks that were dried up have regenerated and now have salmon fry coming up. When Henson found freshwater mussels had a new colony, his excitement rose.

When beavers create fish habitat, and canals for fish to travel, they are inviting other species into ideal habitats.

“Freshwater mussels are one of the most imperiled groups of organisms threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation from dams, and pollution from sedimentation, chemicals, and fertilizers. In fact, 76% of all freshwater mussels are imperiled and 10% are already extinct,” Amy Singler writes on AmericanRivers.org.

Henson says, “they’re really struggling, so to have fresh water mussels in the ponds here at Blackburn was a real treat.” When mussels expel their young, the young sense a fish swimming by, and attach themselves to the gills, travelling in this way to establish new colonies. When beavers create fish habitat, and canals for fish to travel, they are inviting other species into ideal habitats.

In 2021, major flooding required the conservancy to move the bridge over the beaver dam. Henson explained that was a huge impact on their whole development because the beavers “were able to build taller and thicker. And that increased the height of their pond.” The canals that can be seen today happened as a result of that water level simply maintaining and seeping sideways over the rim of the pond into the neighboring area, which normally in summer would be totally dry. For the following two summers, those canals and streams that went out of the pond maintained a longer wetter season for the wetland plants to survive into the dry season. Vegetation is staying greener longer in the summer – “the groundwater is extensive and therefore the vegetation is wetter and doesn’t dry out and burn,” explains Henson.


The new beaver dam, built across Hitchcock Creek, after the original was swept away during the severe flooding in the Fall of 2021 | Photo: Simon Henson

The new beaver dam, built across Hitchcock Creek, after the original was swept away during the severe flooding in the Fall of 2021 | Photo: Simon Henson


After years of research, Henson says, “I felt like I’d gone to the Blackburn Beaver Institute, you know, I was a student. They were the instructors. I’m a salesman for the beaver and I really wanted to portray the beaver as the good guys – not ones that you should trap and destroy and blow up their dams.”

“They’re not doing bad things, they’re doing good things if you can work with them. So my ongoing research is really to say, how can we work together?” Henson’s work is to ask how both human and beaver communities can cohabit and develop these wetlands together, and to build that awareness. “They’re here to stay – this is their territory they’ve always been here.”


If you want to learn more about this project, check out the video of Simon Henson’s captivating presentation on the Blackburn Lake beavers. This presentation is both a journey and an insight into the fascinating world of these wetland engineers, and their adaptability to changes in both their environment and the climate.



Natalia Nybida is a writing student at VIU. Her fiction has been published by Rebel Mountain Press, and her poetry by Sea & Cedar magazine.

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