Author Archives: Keegan Curry

Gardening for a good cause in Kitsap County

By Keegan Curry, SPP Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Program Coordinator

Two community service crewmembers from MCCCW transplant lettuce at the GRACE project.

I recently visited the Kitsap Conservation District (KCD) near Poulsbo, WA to learn more about their innovative GRACE project. GRACE is an acronym for Gardening for Restoration and Conservation Education. Each week, a community service crew from Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW) visits the KCD property and

The KCD offers assistance to landowners throughout the county to help improve their water and soil quality, along with managing other resources in the area.

tends a large vegetable garden that provides fresh produce to local food banks. This gives the incarcerated crew a chance to help those in need while gaining valuable skills in small-scale agriculture and farm management.

The project is coordinated by Resource Planner Diane Fish, whose background includes teaching Ag Entrepreneurship classes for WSU Kitsap County Extension. KCD initiated the GRACE project with a $50,000 grant from the National Association of Conservation Districts, with additional funding from the Washington State Conservation Commission.

“This is where it all happens,” said Diane as she led me through a hi-tunnel full of lush tomato plants. Beyond the tunnel lay several rows of mixed veggies, including onions, garlic, chard, kale, zucchini, yellow squash, collards, green lettuce, and more. It seemed like a diverse crop for such a small area! Shortly after my introduction to the garden, the crew from MCCCW arrived. Diane described their objectives for the morning and soon everyone had an assigned task, spade or shovel in hand.

Resource Planner Diane Fish coordinates the GRACE project, along with other KCD programs. She is an expert farm manager!

I spoke to the crew as they worked in pairs. “I didn’t know anything about gardening before I started coming here,” said one crewmember as she transplanted lettuce starts into carefully-spaced rows. “Now, I want to have my own garden at home once I get out.”

This sentiment was echoed by many women on the crew. They were also keen to mention that their labor was contributing to a good cause. Not only has the garden produced thousands of pounds of produce for local food banks, but the crew even planted a field of carving pumpkins that will be donated to food bank clients via vouchers; families who receive the vouchers can visit the KCD the week before Halloween and pick out their own jack-o-lantern free of charge!

A community service crewmember searches for the ripest zucchini.

MCCCW crews have worked on various KCD projects over the years including stream restoration for salmon recovery, native habitat revegetation, and other less glamorous conservation work. I spoke to Diane again after my visit and she emphasized that these crews “really are saving the world, a little bit at a time, in all the work they do for KCD.” The GRACE project was conceived as a way to enhance the KCD’s existing collaboration with MCCCW. This special initiative adds a meaningful service experience for the incarcerated gardeners while producing much-wanted, high-quality vegetables and herbs for local food banks.

By the end of July, 2018, the GRACE project had donated 4,356 pounds of fresh produce to Central Kitsap Food Bank, St. Vincent DePaul Food Bank, and the Bremerton Foodline. And in an exciting new development, the kitchen at MCCCW has agreed to take donations of produce that can be used for the prison cafeteria.

Thank you to Diane Fish and the KCD for giving me the grand tour, and for working with MCCCW to develop this project. And thanks to the incarcerated crew for getting soil between their fingers as they work to help communities in-need. Yet again, I am reminded of the transformative power of simply growing food.

A wide shot of the GRACE project farm, with MCCCW community service crewmembers harvesting produce for this week’s donations.

A running tally of donated pounds of produce for 2018. The year is only halfway over, and the GRACE project farm is designed to yield fresh produce year-round!

The day’s harvest begins to accumulate as community service crewmembers check on their progress. It’s satisfying to know that these bountiful crates of produce will provide nourishment for those in need.

Mission Creek butterfly technicians visit Taylor’s checkerspot habitat

Text and images by Keegan Curry, SPP Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Coordinator

Biologist Mary Linders shows incarcerated technicians which areas of the prairie are currently occupied by reintroduced Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies.

In late spring, incarcerated technicians from Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW) had the opportunity to visit Scatter Creek Wildlife Area, a reintroduction site for federally-endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies. These technicians work year-round to raise Taylor’s checkerspots in a greenhouse, but this is the first time they have been able to see the habitat where captive-reared butterflies and caterpillars have been released. Mary Linders and Josh Cook from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) conducted a tour of the site, describing its history and ecology as they led us on a hike through the serene prairie.

Sickle-keeled lupine (Lupinis albicaulis) was in full bloom during our prairie tour, dappling the scenery with vibrant purple.

Our visit coincided with the end of the 5-week flight season, so adult butterfly sightings were limited. But technicians wasted no time in examining the Plantago lanceolata host plants and soon discovered Taylor’s checkerspot caterpillars! These hatchlings were just like the ones back in the lab at MCCCW and it was thrilling to find them living out in the wild. At the level of our toes, the habitat appeared to be teeming with young larvae. This particular site represents a major success for Mary Linders and WDFW who carefully reintroduced the species here over many years with the help of rearing programs at MCCCW and the Oregon Zoo.

As a Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) coordinator, I am always searching for ways to connect incarcerated technicians with the ecosystems they are helping to restore. Butterfly technicians know a lot about Salish lowland prairies from readings and discussion, but seeing the habitat with their own eyes provided a whole new level of insight. Hopefully this kind of trip can become a regular component of the program. I know it will help this group of technicians as they return to the butterfly lab at MCCCW and integrate their experience on the prairie into their work.

Such an opportunity would not have been possible without the officers and staff at MCCCW who supported this trip, and who play a vital role in hosting the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly program throughout the year. A special thank you to Mary Linders, Josh Cook, and WDFW for being so generous with their time and facilitating this valuable learning experience for SPP participants.

Technician Tracy Hatch studies harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida) blooming near the trail.

(left to right) Mary Linders and Josh Cook introduce the habitat’s vegetation and discuss the role of fire on the landscape. Photo by Kelli Bush.

Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza deltoidea) is one of adult Taylor’s checkerspots’ favorite perches.

Mary Linders describes the reintroduction process and how the population has progressed in this particular area.

Harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida) stands out against the lush green grasses. This and other paintbrush varieties are known host plants for Taylor’s checkerspots.

Susan Christopher and Nichole Alexander search for wild Taylor’s checkerspot larvae.

Success! Early instar caterpillars huddle within their delicate webbing on Plantago lanceolata, a satisfying moment for butterfly technicians and biologists alike.

Checking in with the Checkerspots

by Keegan Curry, SPP Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Coordinator

Each year, the Sustainability in Prisons Project’s (SPP) Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Program rears thousands of endangered caterpillars for reintroduction to the wild. Incarcerated technicians at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW) shepherd these rare butterflies through each of their four life stages—eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults. The transition from winter to spring is an exciting time for the program because that’s when all the action happens: the larvae wake up and begin to eat, followed shortly by pupation, adult emergence, and captive breeding.

Taylor’s checkerspots are adult butterflies for only about 5 weeks during the spring, so things happen fast; now that we’re nearing the end of “flight” season, it all feels like a white and orange blur! And yet, a lot has happened in the past few months. Two new butterfly technicians joined our team, ~2,800 post-diapause larvae were sent to Joint Base Lewis-McChord for release, 230 adult butterflies eclosed in the lab, and technicians hosted site visits for some of our most valued partners (including one very special guest). To top it all off, the MCCCW butterfly crew celebrated their most productive breeding season to date!

I am pleased to share with you some images from the 2018 rearing season. These photos highlight the tremendous efforts and accomplishments of everyone involved, including staff from Washington Department of Corrections (WA Corrections), Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Oregon Zoo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and many more.

(Left to right) Technician Susan Christopher, WDFW Biologist Mary Linders, and Technicians Nichole Alexander, and Alexis Coleman work together to decide which caterpillars should be released this year and which ones should remain at MCCCW for captive breeding.

Technician Nichole Alexander labels individual deli cups full of caterpillars that have just been woken up from winter diapause. Over 3,000 hungry caterpillars now line these shelves waiting to be released!

WDFW Biologist Mary Linders directs volunteers at a Taylor’s checkerspot release site. We transport caterpillars from the prison to the field and very carefully introduce them to their new environment.

A volunteer transplants Taylor’s checkerspot caterpillars to Plantago lanceolata host plants. It is early spring, so much of the prairie vegetation has yet to flower.

A few caterpillars remain in the MCCCW lab where they will mature to produce some of the program’s next batch of eggs. Here, a few caterpillars get fat and happy as they prepare for pupation. A group of fifteen caterpillars can eat up to eight Plantago leaves per day! Technicians have to feed them constantly to keep up with their appetites.

Once they have reached the appropriate size, caterpillars crawl to the top of their mesh enclosure and hang in a ‘J’ shape before transforming into a chrysalis. Pupation is such a strange and beautiful process to behold, and MCCCW technicians get to watch it happen right before their eyes.

Midway through the season, Carolina Landa (far right) and Dennis Buckingham (second from the left) paid a special visit to the butterfly program. Dennis was the first SPP coordinator and Carolina was one of the original incarcerated technicians, and the part she played in shaping the program is legendary. Carolina returned to MCCCW and share valuable words of encouragement with the current technicians. It was a great opportunity to present Alexis Coleman, Nichole Alexander, and Susan Christopher with their Butterfly Rearing and Research Specialist certificates.

About three weeks after pupation, butterflies begin to emerge from their chrysalises. This is a rewarding moment for the butterfly technicians, but it also means more work! Each butterfly needs to be fed honey from a Q-tip, weighed on a scale, photographed, identified as male or female, and placed in the appropriate enclosure.

Technicians pair male and female checkerspots based on their genetic lineage. Males and females are introduced to each other in these mesh tents. The butterflies were very cooperative this year, wasting no time in consummating the match.

Mated pairs are removed from the breeding tents. Technicians then place the female butterflies on Plantago plant for egg-laying. The male gets to go hang out with his buddies until they are released into the field.

A mated female lays eggs near the base of Plantago lanceolata. In the wild, this is a great place to keep the eggs safe from harm, but in the lab, eggs laid this way pose a challenge for technicians. They will have to use a tiny paintbrush to remove these fragile eggs and transfer them to a 5oz cup where they will eventually hatch.

(Left to right) MCCCW Superintendent Devon Schrum, SPP Co-Director Kelli Bush, USFWS Biologist Karen Reagan, Alexis Coleman, Susan Christopher, Tracy Hatch, USFWS Division Manager Tom McDowell, Nichole Alexander, and SPP Coordinator Keegan Curry take a group photo in front of the butterfly lab. Karen and Tom from USFWS oversee Taylor’s checkerspot recovery on a regional level; they took time out of their busy schedules to visit the MCCCW captive rearing program and see firsthand the work that incarcerated technicians are doing to support endangered species conservation.

Technician Alexis Coleman shares her observations about Taylor’s checkerspot egg-laying behavior with Tom McDowell and Karen Reagan from USFWS.

This year was the most productive breeding season to date for MCCCW: our captive-bred butterflies laid over 8,000 eggs! This is great news for the program and for species recovery in the field, and the technicians at MCCCW should be proud. Their contributions are vital to restoring Taylor’s checkerspot populations in Washington State.

 

Aquaponics training at Cedar Creek

Text and photos by Keegan Curry, SPP Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Coordinator

Cedar Creek Corrections Center (CCCC) has partnered with Symbiotic Cycles, LLC to expand the aquaponics system in the prison’s horticulture program. Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) conservation technicians will be assisting the horticulture team with aquaponics, and I recently attended a training session in support of this collaboration. Cross-training in aquaponics will allow technicians who primarily work with wildlife to gain further knowledge of sustainable practices and explore an innovative technique for growing food.

CCCC horticulture and conservation technicians listen eagerly as instructors describe the importance of regenerative agriculture.

Daniel Cherniske and Nick Naselli of Symbiotic Cycles began the training with an overview of aquaponics—the marriage of aquaculture and hydroponics—followed by a detailed system orientation. Daniel and Nick dedicated a significant portion of their training to discussing sustainable food systems. We learned about soil chemistry and the decline of vital nutrients in many industrial crops along with the wasteful overuse of freshwater resources. Aquaponics offers a unique solution to these issues by creating a “closed-loop” of recycled water and converting nutrients from fish waste and bacterial respiration into a rich growing environment. The horticulture and conservation techs couldn’t stop asking questions!

The system is now operational, thanks to the hard work of CCCC staff, inmates, and partners. Soon it will be producing fresh leafy greens for the prison kitchen while functioning as an educational laboratory.

Horticulture tech William Witt looks on as Daniel Cherniske confirms that, yes, soon there will be beautiful green plants growing in this plain-looking box!

These filtration barrels will house important bacteria. They are the most sensitive part of the system and technicians must be careful not to let the valves become blocked.

Nick Naselli gestures to the filtration barrels that will take up water from the fish pond below.

A freshly introduced goldfish, whose waste will provide important nutrients for bacteria and plant growth.

Horticulture tech Lorenzo Stewart and Nick Naselli share a hilarious aquaponics joke.

Sprouts like these will soon take root in a substrate of non-toxic styrofoam floating above a pool of nutrient-rich water.

 

Celebrating another flight season for butterfly technicians

Text and photos by Keegan Curry, SPP Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Program Coordinator

(Left to right) Jessica Stevens, Nicole Alexander, Cynthia Fetterly (seated), Susan Christopher, and Alexis Coleman pose in front of their original artwork. Ms. Stevens and Ms. Christopher painted this banner to welcome Girl Scouts Beyond Bars to the butterfly lab for a day of activities, including a unique Taylor’s checkerspot merit badge designed by Ms. Alexander.

Inmates at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW) continue to amaze us. Each year, a group of dedicated technicians raise and release thousands of federally-endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies. Not only do these technicians follow rigorous laboratory protocols, they develop their own personal expertise and remain adaptive to the myriad challenges of animal husbandry.

This year we were lucky to have three returning technicians on the team. Jessica Stevens, Cynthia Fetterly, and Susan Christopher have completed multiple seasons in the butterfly lab and they have an in-depth understanding of each life stage. Their experience has taught them how to read these animals down to the finest details, like determining the “instar” of a growing caterpillar or predicting how the weather might influence adult mating behavior. Returning technicians play a crucial role, and it is equally important to recruit new participants. This winter we welcomed Nicole Alexander and Alexis Coleman to the butterfly crew and they began their crash course in Taylor’s checkerspot rearing. By the end of the flight season, Ms. Alexander and Ms. Coleman were well-versed in everything from pupation to egg collection!

Thanks to all of the staff from WA Department of Corrections and MCCCW who work tirelessly to coordinate this program. And of course, we wouldn’t be here without support from the Oregon Zoo and Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. It means a lot to have zookeepers and biologists coming to MCCCW and giving incarcerated technicians the confidence to work with this fragile and beautiful species.

Take a look at these photo highlights from the past few months.

Taylor’s checkerspot caterpillars in their newly-formed cocoons. They remain in this state for up to three weeks and then emerge as butterflies (also known as “eclosion”).

(Left to right) Cynthia Fetterly, Susan Christopher, and Jessica Stevens inspect a pupa to see if it is ready to eclose.

After wiggling free of their cocoons, two adult butterflies dry their wings. It can take several hours after eclosion before they are ready to fly.

Cynthia Fetterly searches for butterfly eggs. She has to check every inch of the plant and down in the rocks at its base. It’s a tedious but crucial task.

This female just laid a fresh cluster of eggs (the tiny yellow orbs on the leaf to her left).

(Left to right) Susan Christopher teaches new technicians Alexis Coleman and Nicole Alexander how to safely handle adult checkerspots. Technicians inspect the size and shape of the abdomen to determine whether butterflies are male or female.

All adult checkerspots must be weighed and measured. Notice how this technician grasps the butterfly with the sides of her fingers, avoiding harm to its wings.

Jessica Stevens keeps a watchful eye over adult breeding tents.

Mottled sunlight and a warm breeze are a checkerspot’s ideal conditions.

The adult life stage is a critical period in the captive rearing program. Technicians conduct dozens of breeding introductions each day, keeping track of each individual’s “matriline” in order to maintain genetic diversity.

Breeding Taylor’s checkerspot takes patience. After hours of waiting and adjusting environmental conditions, these two finally decided to mate.

Susan Christopher leads a tour of the butterfly lab for a documentary crew from PBS Nature. Photo by Kelli Bush.

PBS Nature gathers footage of Susan Christopher and Nicole Alexander double-checking their breeding data. Photo by Kelli Bush.

It’s hard to deny the charm of the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly. We extend our gratitude to the technicians at MCCCW who continue to prove that incarcerated people can make a difference in conserving biodiversity.

 

 

 

Taylor’s checkerspot wake up and release

Text and photos by Keegan Curry, SPP Butterfly Program Coordinator

Washington’s winter was exceptionally cold and wet this year, posing unique challenges for SPP’s Taylor’s checkerspot rearing program. After a deceptive warm spell, the butterfly technicians at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW) brought the caterpillars out of winter diapause only to find that spring was yet to come! Temperatures plummeted and constant rainfall postponed the larval release that typically follows within a few weeks of wake up. But in spite of this delay, technicians patiently fed and nurtured over 3,000 hungry caterpillars as we waited for weather to improve.

(Left to right) Jessica Stevens, Cynthia Fetterly, and Susan Christopher rest after a long day of counting, sorting, and feeding caterpillars. The shelves behind them house over 3,000 Taylor’s checkerspot larvae!

Everyone (including the caterpillars) thought it was time for spring. But winter returned with additional snowfall at the MCCCW rearing facility.

WDFW biologist Mary Linders carefully releases Taylor’s checkerspot larvae onto their host plant.

When environmental conditions finally improved, SPP transported the caterpillars to field sites for release. Our partners at Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) were happy to see healthy and active larvae crawling about in the sunny weather. Sadly, the women from MCCCW were unable to attend the release this year, but their efforts in the lab were recognized as critical in transitioning these larvae from captivity to the wild.

A curious Taylor’s checkerspot larva explores its new habitat.

 

WDFW biologist Mary Linders explains larval release procedures to volunteers.

 

A volunteer releases one final cup of Taylor’s checkerspot caterpillars.

This larva had already traveled over a yard from its release site!

In all, about 2,500 Taylor’s checkerspot larvae made it out to Salish lowland prairie reintroduction sites where they continue to support the recovery of this endangered species and their habitat.

Clouds break over the prairie as Taylor’s checkerspot larvae adjust to their new home.