- Associated Press - Friday, May 13, 2016

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) - Some 20 Northern Nevada Correctional Center inmates are planting thousands of sagebrush seeds in a program aimed at restoring sage grouse habitat across northern Nevada.

Inmate Russell Strotz said they will sprout the seeds in black plastic tubes in hundreds of trays on the south Carson prison grounds until they are six or more inches tall and ready to plant next spring, the Nevada Appeal reported (http://bit.ly/24Ole80).

Shannon Swim, a University of Nevada, Reno graduate managing the program for contractor the Institute for Applied Ecology, said restoration is vital because sagebrush has declined badly because of cheat grass fed wildfires that are destroying the plant.

Rob Burton of the Bureau of Land Management Winnemucca office said those fires kill sagebrush pretty much instantly.

“It doesn’t survive fires at all,” he said.

Burton said when the sagebrush is gone, so are the grouse that rely on it for almost their entire diet. But he said it takes years for the sagebrush to return because, first the grasses grow back, then the flowering plants.

He said it might be 15 year or more before a healthy crop of sagebrush is growing in burned areas again.

As a result of those fires, Swim said the sage grouse population in the West has declined from millions to between 200,000 and 500,000.

Burton said they have tried aerial seeding, but with minimal success. Seedlings, he said, should be much more likely to survive and thrive.

He and Swim also said they are looking into using honor camp trustees from places like the Humboldt Conservation Camp near Winnemucca to actually plant the seedlings next spring.

Swim said NNCC is one of three Nevada prisons involved. The other two are the Warm Springs Correctional Center in Carson City and the Lovelock Correctional Center. She said altogether, the inmates will grow 105,000 plants using seeds provided by BLM officials that were harvested from the burned areas. That way, Burton said, the specific types of sagebrush that grow in those areas are going to be returned to them. There are eight types of sagebrush just in his district, he said, and some may be better at surviving in specific areas than others.

Melanie Rasor of BLM said the agency planted 250,000 plants last year on 2,273 acres in Nevada. She and Burton said while that sounds like a lot, that’s far less than the number of acres that burned last year.

Strotz said he and the other inmates working on the project filled 17,000 tubes with seed, dirt and fertilizer on a recent day and planned to do 35,000 at NNC altogether. He said it’s an enjoyable project.

“Mostly it passes the time,” he said. “I’m learning something, giving back to the community and I enjoy it.”

He said he and a few other inmates will nurse the tiny plants through the winter so they will be in good shape to put in the ground next spring.

Warden Isidro Baca and Burton said the program has another advantage as well: those inmates are learning skills that could get them jobs in nurseries and landscaping businesses once they are released.

Baca said they also are looking at expanding the program to growing other types of native plants, which could turn into another industry for the prison.

Burton said sagebrush is vital to the grouse’s survival: “pretty much in winter, 100 percent,” he said. “They live on sagebrush.”

He said the sage grouse is one of the few species other than the pygmy rabbit that can actually get nourishment out of the sagebrush.

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Information from: Nevada Appeal, http://www.nevadaappeal.com

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