Inmates plant sagebrush near Ephrata, Washington.

Inmates plant sagebrush near Ephrata, Washington.

Courtney Flatt, Northwest Public Radio

The sagebrush ecosystem is in trouble — thanks to invasive species and wildfires, which have damaged much of the land in the West. Now, to help restore some recently burned areas, inmates from central Washington are planting sagebrush that has been grown in prisons.

The vast steppe-like landscape near Ephrata, Washington, stretches almost as far as you can see. Most of the sagebrush is pretty healthy, if not too dense. But this 240-acre patch of public land was burned last year.

The burned area has been reseeded with bunch grasses. If you look closely, you can see burned sagebrush stumps sticking up from the ground.

“Here’s another sagebrush body,” Gretchen Graber says. She’s a graduate student at Washington State University-Tri Cities.

Over the last few months, she’s taught inmates at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center how to grow sagebrush. The project a first of its kind: a sagebrush restoration program being conducted in a Washington State prison.

Graber hopes it will help this ecosystem.

“In the past 100 years, we have lost 50 percent of our shrub steppe [in the West],” she says.

In a small effort to combat loss from wildfires, over-grazing, and invasive species, the inmates will plant 20,000 sagebrush seedlings. The seedlings are tiny, about four inches tall. As inmates carry boxes of the plants around, the sagebrush perfume wafts through the air.

“These look really good because you have roots all the way down to the bottom,” Molly Boyter says. Boyter is a botanist with the Bureau of Land Management.

Inmates dig holes about 20 feet apart. Then they take the plants out of plastic containers and gently cover the deep roots with dirt.

This minimum-security crew normally helps with park upkeep in Connell, about 60 miles down the road.

There’s a big push to get this type of habitat restored. The reason: greater sage grouse.

Earlier this year, the federal government decided not to add the chicken-sized birds to the Endangered Species List. That’s in part due to local programs like this across 11 Western states. These on-the-ground efforts are all meant to help the bird before federal regulations required people to do more.

Graber said restoring the ecosystem helps more than just one bird.

“Sage grouse is part of a community of plants and animals and insects, and if we are doing restoration for the greater sage grouse, we’re also helping the logger head shrike, sage sparrow,” Graber said.

The list goes on to include more than 300 species.

One inmate helping with the planting is Joseph Perkins.

He said he’s seen forested ecosystems destroyed where he grew up in western Washington. That’s why he’s glad to help restore this shrub steppe landscape, which Perkins hopes sage grouse will eventually call home.

“It’s kind of sad how things are set up with species — that we don’t do anything until they get to the endangered point. And what I see as part of treating our planet wisely is to think ahead,” Perkins says.

Officials want to continue the program next year. The graduate student Gretchen Graber thinks then inmates may plant sagebrush and other bunch grasses where the Douglas Complex burned this summer.

Inmates plant 20,000 sagebrush seedlings to help restore greater sage grouse habitat that was burned last year. This is the first sagebrush restoration program in Washington state prisons.

Inmates plant 20,000 sagebrush seedlings to help restore greater sage grouse habitat that was burned last year. This is the first sagebrush restoration program in Washington state prisons.

Courtney Flatt, Northwest Public Radio