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Inmates help save sage-grouse by cultivating sagebrush

The sagebrush program at Snake River Correctional Institution is deploying inmates to grow and plant native sagebrush to help bolster Sage-Grouse habitat. The program is brokered by the Sustainability in Prisons Project.

Read full article here (by Zachary Chastaine in The Argus Observer)

"In the ongoing push to keep greater sage grouse off the endangered species list, some Snake River Correctional Institute inmates have taken up the task of cultivating thousands of sagebrush plants to help revitalize the bird’s habitat.

Three to five inmates work every day to help maintain the sagebrush. The seeds used for this project were eco-sourced from a group of plants native to the area, so when inmates plant the sagebrush in March 2015, it will match the surrounding environment.

Two inmates working with the program are Jason Kennedy, 30, and Daniel Rosenberry, 52. They, along with the other inmates, work seven days a week to plant the seeds, water and fertilize the plants and carry out other tasks to keep the plants healthy.

“Seventy percent of what we first planted came up,” Rosenberry said.

The inmates are re-planting the planters with higher-elevation seeds that might have more success than the original seeds, Rosenberry added. In all, they are growing 20,000 containers of sagebrush seedlings.

In recent days, inmates have moved the seedlings out of the greenhouse in which they had been sowed due to the high heat. In addition to making sure the plants survive the warm weather, the inmates are recording their progress every step of the way.

The recording is important since the conservation effort is part of a pilot program. The inmates at Snake River Correctional Institution are the first to attempt such a project.

“It’s the first time it’s been tried,” Rosenberry said.

He and Kennedy said they were excited to be a part of the pilot program and saw the value in its success. They and the others involved had heard lectures on ecology and understand the important role sagebrush plays in maintaining sage grouse.

The birds depend on the brush for habitat; if it goes, so do they.

“It’s something really worthwhile to do,” Rosenberry said. “I’m an outdoor person anyway, and it’s good to know you’re helping out.”

Kennedy said this batch of sagebrush would be taken to an area north of Jordan Valley called Danner Loop that had been burned by brush fires about two years ago. He said the inmates had taken classes on growing the seeds.

Stacy Moore from the Corvallis-based Institute of Applied Ecology has been teaching the inmates about growing and assisting them with the project. The institute is a nonprofit that works toward conservation through research and restoration programs such as this one.

Moore and the inmates explained how the invasive grasses, primarily cheatgrass that grows in the same places as the native sagebrush, have been creating fire conditions that were much hotter than sagebrush would normally experience.

Typically sagebrush seeds would survive a brushfire, and the plant would naturally be able to regrow in an area that had been burned. However, the fire conditions created by the onset of species like cheatgrass are much hotter than the sagebrush seeds can survive. As a result, the sagebrush does not regrow.

That’s a huge problem for sage grouse, which are entirely dependent on sagebrush at every step of their life cycles, Moore said. Sage grouse use sagebrush for nesting, cover and food.

“Sage grouse don’t have a gizzard,” Moore said, adding that instead of using a gizzard to break down food, like other birds, sage grouse eat the soft buds on the sagebrush.

Sage grouse are at risk of being put on the endangered species list, which could mean limited access to rangeland ranchers have relied on for generations. This is a major concern for people in Malheur County and across the West where sage grouse live.

Superintendent Mark Nooth said the program was important for the region, as keeping the sage grouse off the endangered species list would prevent possible adverse effects to the local economy.

“There would be a financial impact on Malheur County,” Nooth said.

He said the program also helps the prison accomplish its mission to help inmates find valuable ways to contribute to society and enable them to turn their lives around.

The inmates’ project, if successful, will help protect sage grouse and help keep the area’s economic viability safe from possible protective sanctions.

In addition, the inmates will receive certificates reflecting the horticultural skills they have learned to help them find jobs when they have finished serving their sentences.

Moore said the sagebrush program at Snake River Correctional Institution was brokered by the manager of Sustainability in Prisons Project by Capt. Chad Noggle at Coffee Creek Correctional Institution..."