Growing sage for grouse; Honor Farm seedling, transplant program expands in its second year

RIVERTON – After a successful debut last year, the Wyoming Honor Farm in Riverton has expanded its sagebrush-growing efforts to enhance habitat for the greater sage grouse. 

For this second season, inmates are engaged in the sowing and care of more than 40,000 sagebrush seedlings that will be transplanted in disturbed sagebrush ecosystems across Wyoming this fall. 

The project is a partnership with the Wyoming Department of Corrections, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Institute for Applied Ecology, a non-profit natural resource organization in Corvallis, Ore.

Is more sagebrush really needed? The sage grouse would say yes. The motivation for the project is the decline of habitat for the greater sage-grouse. The iconic western birds require large, continuous areas of sagebrush habitat to thrive. They are a sagebrush-obligate species, meaning they depend on sagebrush for every stage of the life cycle. 

The birds’ historic range sagebrush steppe habitat originally spanned 16 American states and parts of Canada, but now their range is limited to just 11 western states — with more in Wyoming than any other state. 

With this decline in habitat, the sage grouse have seen an estimated population decline of nearly 98 percent between 1988 and 2012. A century ago, sage grouse numbers were estimated at 16 million. Now that estimate ranges from 200,000 to 500,000 birds. 

Declines in sage grouse numbers can be attributed to energy development, the spread of competing invasive species, agricultural conversion, drought, wildfire, and other human activities. 

Valued as a perpetually hardy and a permanent fixture in the open expanses of Wyoming’s desert prairies, sagebrush is quite difficult to re-establish once killed, taking decades, even centuries, to regenerate. 

Wyoming is home to nearly 40 percent of the nation’s current sage grouse population, and the state is heavily involved in natural resource extraction. 

The Wyoming Honor Farm is proving a good partner for growing sagebrush. 

In 2019 sagebrush seedlings grown by the inmates were transplanted in designated reclamation areas across Wyoming to reclaim habitat primarily affected by wildfire and mining.

In Fremont County, students at Lander Middle School and inmates at the Wyoming Honor Farm were involved in several different plantings, resulting in the transplanting of nearly 11,000 sagebrush seedlings in the Gas Hills uranium mining district, about 45 miles east of Riverton. 

In 2020, inmates haven sown sagebrush seedlings to be transplanted in the same region this fall. 

Since 2014, the Institute for Applied Ecology, the Bureau of Land Management, and correctional facilities across the western United States have grown and planted more than 1 million plants as part of the Sagebrush in Prisons Project. This year, the project is active at the Honor Farm and nine other correctional facilities in the West. 

The “win-win” program allows the BLM to receive quality plants for restoration work, and it gives inmates a chance to learn new skills and contribute to the larger community. 

Since the early 1990s “green prison” programs have sprung up across the United States in a variety of forms. The programs combine horticulture activities with vocational education. Studies have shown that participation such programs has the potential to reduce recidivism rates, promote cooperative behavior, and encourage social skills. 

Former green prison program participants have said their participation increased their self-esteem and feelings of self-worth, which resulted in their feeling less anxious, depressed, and aggressive. 

Gina Clingerman, an archeologist with the BLM who has been instrumental in bringing the project to Wyoming said the project has multiple benefits. 

“Growing sagebrush seedlings at the Honor Farm provides inmates with an opportunity to improve the fabric of the Wyoming landscape,” she said. “It gives them renewed hope for themselves as they learn to tend to these tiny plants. 

“I’ve said this several times, and it rings true, that this project is a two-fold reclamation project. The planting of the seedlings helps restore sagebrush to mined and disturbed areas and the growing of those seedlings helps reclaim the hearts and minds of the inmates who participate.”