Over 350 species of animals, birds and lizards depend on sagebrush. Some of these species are sagebrush obligates which means that without access to the bush these species die. Sagebrush obligate species include the greater sage grouse, the pygmy rabbit and the black-tailed jack rabbit.
Over 350 species of animals, birds and lizards depend on sagebrush. Some of these species are sagebrush obligates which means that without access to the bush these species die. Sagebrush obligate species include the greater sage grouse, the pygmy rabbit and the black-tailed jack rabbit.
More than a year after the Martin fire in northern Humboldt County, restoration efforts are well underway. Part of the restoration program is to plant a keystone species — sagebrush — to a land scarred by wildfire. And a large part of that program is the Sagebrush in Prison program headed by projected coordinator Shannon Swim.

Swim oversees a group of inmates at the Lovelock Correctional Facility who have volunteered to plant sagebrush seeds, care for them and harvest them to be planted across the West. Swim says the purpose is to restore wildlife habitat especially for the sage grouse while also engaging state prison systems. Swim said the program not only grows desperately-needed plant material, but also teaches inmates a bit of ecology along the way. 

“We go into these institutions and we teach the inmates how to grow the sagebrush which includes how to sow, how to care for it, and then we also have this whole educational aspect where we teach them not just how to grow but why we are growing,” she said.

According to BLM Public Affairs Specialist Heather O’Hanlon, between Oct. 27 and Nov. 9, the BLM planted 246,000 sagebrush seedlings on 2,240 acres within three separate areas of the Martin Fire. The Prison project provided 110,000 of those plants for the Martin Fire rehabilitation efforts. An additional 176,000 seedlings came from four different prisons in Lovelock and Carson City and Herlong, Calif. to rehabilitate the Holloway Fire. This was the largest seedling acquisition from the prison system to date, O’Hanlon wrote in a follow-up email.   

The sagebrush species the program grows for the BLM include Wyoming and Mountain Big sagebrush, but other species also grow in the Great Basin area including Basin Big Sagebrush and Low Sagebrush.

The Sagebrush in Prisons Project is coordinated by Institute for Applied Ecology's Ecological Education Program and is part of the Sustainability in Prisons Project. It is an environmental partnership between the Institute for Applied Ecology, Department of Corrections, and the BLM to provide activities for incarcerated adults with the goal of restoring native habitat for the greater sage-grouse in the Great Basin region through a five state plant production and ecological education initiative. The program started as a pilot program in Oregon in 2014 and by 2016 northern Nevada had its own program at three prisons.

The program begins in February or March when Swim gets the sagebrush seeds from the BLM. Swim said the seeds are designated for certain areas and are genetically appropriate for that area. Once the seeds have been received, planting and maintenance can begin. 

Inmates participating in the program care for the plants, spending three to four hours daily feeding, watering, weeding and keeping track of plant health.  

This year, the Lovelock program experienced pathogen problems. We had two different pathogens that affected our plant growth,” inmate Phillip Smith said. “But we were able to pull it together.”  

Samples were sent to the Nevada Department of Agriculture and test determined the sagebrush had root rot pathogens. Smith estimates that the pathogens affected about 2/3 of their crop. However, he said, the inmates learned how to deal with the problem and bring many of the plants back to health.

Smith and other program participants have put together a program log of the 2019 sagebrush growing season. The log includes germination information, growth rates, mortality rates, and notes from guest lectures.

Smith hopes that the Institute for Applied Ecology or the BLM will make the information available to the public to educate people about the importance of sagebrush. 

Swim said she takes the data the inmates collect, and the Institute for Applied Ecology incorporates it into final reports which are sent to the BLM to show what the inmates been doing and what they've been learning. Swim said these reports help with outreach efforts because this program is about so much more than just growing sagebrush. 

“Most people don't know how important sagebrush is and just think of it as kind of a weed,” she said. “But the reality is that it's a keystone species that holds together this huge ecosystem and without it, it will collapse, and so the outreach is crucial.”