ONTARIO, Ore. (AP) — Inmates in an eastern Oregon prison are tending about 20,000 seedlings that could grow to provide food and shelter for a bird whose habitat has shrunk and whose prospects are raising concern all over ranching country in the West.
The prisoners at the Snake River Correctional Institution are growing sagebrush, which sage grouse depend on for food and shelter.
Environmentalists have pressed the government to put the bird on the endangered species list, which could mean cutbacks in ranchers’ access to public grazing land to preserve bird habitat. That has led to efforts across the West to stave off the listing.
The project was put together by the prison, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Corvallis-based Institute of Applied Ecology, where Stacy Moore has been helping the inmates grow the plants that the bureau paid for, the Ontario Argus Leader reported.
The institute is a nonprofit that works toward conservation through research and restoration programs. The bureau manages public grazing land.
Three to five inmates work every day to help maintain the sagebrush, recently taken from the prison greenhouse because the weather was heating up.
“It’s something really worthwhile to do,” said Daniel Rosenberry, 52. “I’m an outdoor person anyway, and it’s good to know you’re helping out.”
The sagebrush will be planted north of Jordan Valley in an area called Danner Loop that was burned by brush fires about two years ago, said another inmate, Jason Kennedy, 30.
Typically, sagebrush seeds would survive a brush fire, 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.
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.
The bureau plans to expand the program in 2015, and it could be in four more prisons in sagebrush country, Moore said.