Inmates helping heal Nevada's landscape and the sage grouse

Published: Apr. 26, 2016 at 4:22 PM PDT
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Nevada's landscape is changing.

With each wildfire season, thousands of acres of sagebrush are lost and with them, the threatened sage grouse that depends on sagebrush creeps closer to endangered status with consequences not only for the bird, but industries that use this landscape.

Time was, the sage and other natural plants would reclaim these areas. Cheat grass has changed that equation. Experts have been saying it for years. The Sagebrush State is rapidly becoming the Cheat Grass State.

"There's a lot of truth to that," says Shannon Swim of the Institute for Applied Ecology, a non-profit organization working with state and federal agencies to restore the sagebrush habitat.

The state's prisons may seem an odd launch site for a key part of that effort, but that's what you'll find in the Structured Care Unit at Carson City's Northern Nevada Correctional Center.

Inmates mixing potting soil, packing it into crates of cone-like containers and then, planting them with sagebrush seed--in this case gathered near a burn site in Elko County.

In a couple of weeks, as many as 35-thousand new sagebrush plants will be poking up into the sunlight. They'll spend the next several months growing under the inmates' care. This fall they'll be transplanted in fire-damaged areas.

Sagebrush gets a head start on cheat grass; the sage grouse is a little safer. These inmates can share in that victory.

"That's what our main goal is, to get this sagebrush out there so they can grow there habitat and get bigger," says inmate Stanley Locus, doing time for a parole violation. He adds that he wants the project to succeed so it will continue at the prison.

Fellow inmate Alan Blank, serving time for being an ex-felon in possession of a weapon, agrees.

"I like working with plants," he says, "It's beneficial both for nature and myself. It gives me something to do so I'm not getting into any trouble."

So, it's something of a win-win, something Swim says wouldn't be happening without their effort.

"To have private companies do it can get really expensive. This way we can keep everything local and also give the inmates a chance to learn about sagebrush ecology, the sage grouse and get exposed to science in general."