Category Archives: Science


By Dennis Aubrey, Brittany Gallagher, and Andrea Martin

Brittany Gallagher, Dennis Aubrey, and Andrea Martin in Canada for CONFOR West.

Brittany Gallagher, Dennis Aubrey, and Andrea Martin in Canada for CONFOR West.

In late April three SPP Graduate Research Assistants attended CONFOR West, an annual conference in Western Canada highlighting environmental science, forestry, and collaborative conservation. This year the SPPers, along with another Evergreen Masters of Environmental Studies student, were the only four students from the United States.

This year the conference was held in Kananaskis, Alberta, in the spectacular Canadian Rockies just southeast of Banff. The four of us chose to drive together rather than fly, both to save money and to gain a better appreciation for the landscape and culture of the region. The first night we stopped and soaked in Radium Hot Springs, near the entrance to Kootenay National Park. The next morning we drove up into the Kootenay high country, where we saw a large bull moose crossing a river, and over 50 white-tailed and mule deer browsing near the road in meadows newly emerged from the melting snowpack. After crossing a few passes and traversing northward through long valleys, we made our way up and over the continental divide, simultaneously entering Alberta and Banff National Park. It was still early in the day so before heading south to Kananaskis we turned north and drove about 75km up the famed Icefields Parkway, where we snapped pictures of hanging glaciers and frozen lakes amid towering frosted peaks.

The conference itself was set at the Canadian Rockies and Foothills Biogeoscience Institute, and consisted of two mornings of presentations followed by afternoon activities, with poster sessions and keynote speakers in the evenings. Morning-session presentations were in two formats: 5-minute lightning talks and 15-minute featured presentations. Lightning talks at CONFOR are doubly challenging, as they include self-advancing PowerPoint slides, making practice and timing essential. Some general themes that emerged from the talks given by Canadian students were related to mountain pine bark beetles, tar-sands impacts and mitigation, and involving First Nations peoples in collaborative conservation.

All three SPP graduate students gave presentations on our thesis work. Both Brittany and Andrea took the challenge and gave well-received lightning talks. Brittany presented on her work with the Sustainability in Prisons Project evaluating the effectiveness of environmental, educational, and sustainability programs in Washington state prisons. Andrea talked about evaluating the effectiveness of youth conservation corps leadership programs. Dennis gave a 15-minute presentation which included an overview of the Sustainability in Prisons Project, and a brief discussion of his research with incarcerated women exploring Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies’ use of golden paintbrush. At the end of the conference, Dennis’ presentation was voted best 15-minute presentation and mentioned as a close second for most creative presentation overall.

Another unique aspect of CONFOR West is that it is planned and attended solely by graduate students. This tends to give it a more casual and festive atmosphere than other scientific conferences. Groups went snowshoeing and hiking in the mountains, and informal discussion groups formed in the common area and dining hall. Overall, the trip was a rewarding and educational experience. Many fellow attendees commented enthusiastically on the novelty of SPP, and some expressed interest in the idea of bringing SPP to Canadian correctional institutions. Some of the relationships and perspectives we gained will undoubtedly serve us in the future, allowing us to more effectively collaborate with our colleagues across the border.

High diapause survival and a successful release for the butterfly program at MCCCW

by Graduate Research Assistant Dennis Aubrey

Over 3500 caterpillars were at Mission Creek, waiting to be released

Over 3500 caterpillars were at Mission Creek, waiting to be released


Diapause Survival

Congratulations and thanks are in order for the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly technicians and staff at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW), and everyone else who supports the program at Evergreen, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the Oregon Zoo. To recap, last season we produced 3624 eggs, which was 180% of our target, then the caterpillars that hatched from those eggs reached summer diapause with 96.6% survivorship. For eight months they have been sleeping in small insect cups beneath overturned terra cotta pots, but now they are awake again and the numbers are in: 98.9% diapause survival.

Fifteen Taylor's checkerspot caterpillars waiting to be released

Fifteen Taylor’s checkerspot caterpillars waiting to be released

After spending the summer being pampered by the inmate technicians at Mission Creek, the bulk of our caterpillars were transported to the established diapause facility at the Oregon Zoo. Five hundred were left behind as a trial group since it was our first season and we wanted to test the over-winter conditions at the greenhouse before risking a whole cohort. Of those five hundred, 100% survived! As always, our success is a credit to the meticulous, dedicated, and compassionate care provided by the inmate technicians. Every step of the way they have gone the extra mile, checking every detail twice as often as required, keeping records that no one ever asked them to take, and proving with every stage’s success that the faith placed in their abilities by our partners was well warranted.

Two teams releasing caterpillars at Glacial Heritage Preserve, near Littlerock, Wa

Two teams releasing caterpillars at Glacial Heritage Preserve, near Littlerock, Wa

Post-diapause release

About 3400 of our federally threatened caterpillars are now munching leaves on the prairies at Glacial Heritage Preserve and Scatter Creek Wildlife Area, raising the total number of animals released the butterfly program at MCCCW from 701 to over 4000! Our biggest release of the year is just a week after diapause wake-up, so we had a wild week at MCCCW trying to feed breakfast to so many animals. Our supply of food plants was dwindling rapidly, but relief was in sight: sunny weather was forecast for Monday, March 4. We filled up seven coolers with caterpillar cups and sent them out to the prairie. Once there, a team of about ten biologists, students, and volunteers spent the day crawling backwards from host plant to host plant depositing 2-5 caterpillars on each one. It’s a painstaking process, but it’s important to make sure that the animals have enough host plant material to give them a good chance of making it to pupation, sometime in April.

SPP Graduate Research Assistant Dennis Aubrey helping caterpillars find new homes

SPP Graduate Research Assistant Dennis Aubrey helping caterpillars find new homes

Just 185 caterpillars remain in the captive colony at MCCCW. These are considered our “backup breeders”. We will raise them to adulthood so that we can rely on them for eggs if anomalous weather or some other unforeseen event causes wild populations to crash. Every year we aim to produce a new generation from wild-caught females, but the colony of backup breeders is arranged to maintain maximum possible genetic diversity for as long as possible just in case. The butterfly technicians at MCCCW are out there every day taking care of those 185 special recruits, giving them fresh leaves and raising them up like athletes in case they have to pitch in to help save their species.

 Taylor's checkerspot caterpillars enjoying some tasty leaves after being released

Taylor’s checkerspot caterpillars enjoying some tasty leaves after being released

Conservation Nursery Crew Begins Work at WCCW

Conservation Nursery Crew Begins Work at WCCW

By Graduate Research Assistant Brianna Morningred

With the completion of two hoop houses, work with the inmate crew at Washington State Correction Center for Women (WCCW) has begun. We have three inmates working with us and it is so wonderful that they all are genuinely excited to be a part of the project. The very first day Carl Elliott and I introduced ourselves and began teaching the women about the work they will be doing. One of them had horticulture experience, but regardless, conservation nursery work is a lot different than your average gardening.  All three women picked up the technique quickly and were excited to get started.

WCCW conservation nursery technicians and their supervisor work in a new hoop house. Photo by B. Morningred.


We began sowing work with CAHI, also known as Castilleja hispida or Indian Paintbrush. This rare native plant species is crucial for the preservation of Puget Sound Prairies.  As it is difficult to germinate successfully, we at SPP put a lot of care into sowing CAHI.  In order to help the inmate technicians really understand what they are a part of, I brought them visual aids to show them where their plants would go and why what they are doing matters so much. They seemed to really appreciate knowing that their work is a part of something bigger—which is one of most important points I wanted to get across.

As of January 9, 2013, our great crew at WCCW has sown approximately 300 trays—30,000 cells—of CAHI and they are still going strong.  The increasingly colder weather is making work a little more difficult but we are fortunate to have such a dedicated crew—being productive no matter what the fickle Washington weather may bring. In the next couple of weeks we’ll begin sowing WYAN or Wyethia angustifolia, the Narrowleaf Wyethia. WYAN is an essential daisy-like perennial that supports the endangered Fender’s Blue Butterfly species that are native to Washington and Oregon prairies.

An inmate technician at WCCW sows seed using a dial seed sower. Photo by B. Morningred.


In addition to learning a lot about sowing techniques, we have also organized a Lending Library so each inmate can check out one book each week for additional learning.  The women have really enjoyed this opportunity as their prison library is currently closed for renovation.  They have taken particular advantage of the copies of our Conservation Nursery Manual, which we have supplied for them to learn in more detail about the processes they are completing each day.

It has been a wonderful start at WCCW. We are looking forward to spring, warmer weather, and hopefully high germination rates!

Conservation nursery technicians arrange trays in a hoop house at WCCW. Photo by B. Morningred.


Butterfly Techs at Mission Creek Helping with the Evergreen Environmental Observation Network

Butterfly Techs at Mission Creek Helping with the Evergreen Environmental Observation Network

By Dennis Aubrey, SPP Graduate Research Assistant & Taylor’s checkerspot program coordinator

While the Taylor’s checkerspot caterpillars at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women are sleeping under terra cotta pots for the winter, the inmate butterfly techs on the project have not been idle. They’ve helped to write season ending reports, compile data, produce rearing protocols, and last week they started helping with an ongoing ecological study through The Evergreen State College and the Evergreen Environmental Observation Network (EEON).

Evergreen sits on 1,000 acres of second growth lowland temperate rainforest, and EEON is a series of 44 fixed long-term study plots within this forest. Students and faculty conduct a wide range of research projects using the network, and the latest involves bigleaf maple leaves and the tar spot fungus (Rhytisma punctatum).

Tar spot fungus is not well studied in Pacific Northwest forests, but it has a fascinating life history. It infects the new maples leaves each year, and creates a small dark spot where it is somehow able to hijack the photosynthetic machinery of the leaf. As the trees try to reabsorb precious chlorophyll with the onset of autumn (the reason leaves change color) to store over the winter, the tar spots are able to hold on to a last bit of green. Dr. Carri LeRoy, co-director of the SPP, is interested in understanding how the higher nutrients remaining in the infected areas interact with the fungal tissue to influence rates of leaf litter decomposition.

Research at The Evergreen State College is examining this question (LeRoy et al. 2011, Freshwater Biology), and in the meantime there is also much to learn about the fungus’ population structure and spatial distribution. The inmates at Mission Creek are examining leaf litter from the EEON plots to try to gain a better understanding of how it varies across the forest landscape. They are sorting the leaves, removing tar spots and weighing both the tar spots and the remaining leaf material. This will provide a measurement of relative biomass in 44 locations. Meanwhile, Evergreen students are working on quantifying forest stand structure in the plots so that tar spot density can be compared to the percentage of maple trees in each location.

This collaborative work provides real involvement in science to the inmates and also much-needed lab support to EEON. As usual, the butterfly technicians at Mission Creek have been meticulous and dedicated research partners.

Inmate butterfly technicians examine maple leaves and tar spot fungus through a dissection microscope. Photo by D. Aubrey.

Using Worms to Reduce Food Waste at Monroe Correctional Complex!

By Donna Simpson, Administrative Assistant 3 at Monroe Correctional Complex

The Monroe Correctional Complex is using worms to reduce food waste disposal costs while also providing a meaningful science and sustainability education and work program for offenders.

Currently at 5 million worms, the vermiculture program can process 10,000 pounds of food scraps per month, resulting in a cost reduction of more than 25%.  This translates into big savings for the prison, which previously spent $60,000 a year on food waste disposal before several sustainability initiatives began.

In January of 2010, staff and offenders developed the vermiculture program by collecting just 200 red wiggler worms (Eisenia fetida) for three small breeding bins built by offenders. Very little funding has been invested in the program. As the worm population grew, new and improved models of worm bins were built by converting discarded barrels, old laundry carts, food carts, and recycled mattress materials. This indoor commercial-sized “Wormery” currently has more than 170 worm bins designed and built by offenders.  Seventeen of the bins are “flow-through” style.  The flow-through bins are primarily built from re-purposed materials by offenders, whereas they would typically retail at more than $5,000 each.

This program provides other benefits, including the by-products produced by the worms. Worm castings (worm manure) are a valuable, high-quality organic fertilizer sought after in the organic gardening market. The “Wormery” also produces 400 gallons of worm tea fertilizer per week. The worm castings and worm tea are used in the several acres of gardens at Monroe Correctional Complex.

Studies have shown that offenders who participate in horticulture programs while incarcerated have a lower rate of recidivism. Offenders develop important vocational and life skills. The worm technicians at MCC wrote an operations manual that is now available to assist other institutions in starting new vermiculture programs. They have also developed an extensive breeding program capable of exporting worms to other Washington institutions, agencies or schools. Thus far, Washington State Penitentiary and Stafford Creek Corrections Center have received worms as a result of this program.


Worm breeding bins


Flow through bins designed and built by inmates


Worm Breeding Bins


246 Oregon spotted frogs released on September 24th!

246 Oregon spotted frogs released on September 24th!

By Graduate Research Assistant Andrea Martin

The Sustainability in Prisons Project has been busy this month hosting various media crews, conference attendees, and other visitors. One of our conservation projects, the Oregon spotted frog rearing project at Cedar Creek Corrections Center, has been the focus of lots of attention as the inmates and all of our rearing partners have approached this year’s release.

On Monday, September 24th, seven months of hard work and care culminated in the release of 246 adult frogs at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Unfortunately, the inmates were not able to attend the release at the military base, but they did get the chance to talk with reporters from the Associated Press and the New York Times who visited the prison to learn about the project. Additionally, the frog rearing program at CCCC is the subject of a forthcoming photography project by well-known French wildlife photographer Cyril Ruoso. Ruoso’s work, including photos of the OSF project, will be on exhibit this summer at the Museum of Natural History in Paris.

Unlike previous releases where cloudy skies and rain jackets are seen in every photo, this year the sun was shining as SPP Co-Director Carri LeRoy and SPP Graduate Research Assistants Andrea Martin and Brittany Gallagher joined JBLM and WDFW biologists, DOC staff, and two media crews to help release this year’s frogs.

The frogs raised at CCCC will be joined in early October by frogs from the Oregon Zoo, Woodland Park Zoo, and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park. That release will officially end the 2012 rearing season.

But the work of caring for the endangered species doesn’t end there for the inmate frog technicians at CCCC. Soon they will receive any undersize or underweight frogs from other institutions. The inmates will get the chance to fatten up and improve the health of any tiny frogs so they’ll be ready for release in the spring, before new eggs come in.

Thank you to all of our partners for another successful frog rearing season!

Editor’s Note: Make sure to check out the recent piece on SPP’s rearing program in the New York Times!

     Cedar Creek Corrections Center Superintendent Doug Cole holds two bins of frogs awaiting release at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Photo by B.Gallagher.

     SPP co-director Carri LeRoy watches two Oregon spotted frogs leap to their freedom during the frog release on Monday, September 24. Photo by B.Gallagher.

     Cedar Creek Classification Counselor Vicki Briggs releases a bin full of Oregon Spotted Frogs as photographers Matthew Ryan Williams (left) and Cyril Ruoso document the event. Photo by B.Gallagher.

     SPP Graduate Research Assistants Andrea Martin (left) and Brittany Gallagher hold Oregon spotted frogs for a moment before release at JBLM. Photo by C.LeRoy.


SPP Oregon Spotted Frog Program Transitions

SPP Oregon Spotted Frog Program Transitions

By SPP Project Manager Kelli Bush

The SPP Oregon spotted frog program at Cedar Creek Corrections Center (CCCC) has recently undergone a few changes. The continued success of this and other SPP programs is owed to a collaborative effort. Department of Corrections (DOC) staff members are an essential part of the team working to rear frogs at the prison. Since 2009, Classification Counselor Marko Anderson has been the staff person supervising the daily work of the inmate technicians, communicating project needs, and coordinating access for SPP staff, project biologists, and other visitors. Marko has been dedicated and hard-working. He took on the duties of the program in addition to his work load as a Classification Counselor. It is with mixed emotions that we bid Marko farewell. He has accepted a promotion at Washington Correction Center in Shelton. We are very happy he has been promoted, but he will be missed. We are grateful to have had such a devoted person working to ensure success of the program.

On the bright side, we are pleased to announce that Classification Counselor Vicki Briggs has volunteered to take on the OSF program duties at CCCC. Over the past several years Vicki has been regularly serving as the back-up supervisor for the program during times when Marko was on leave. She has always been a tremendous help, including when we were dealing with mortalities this season. Vicki also leads the beekeeping program at CCCC. We are so pleased to continue the program with her help.

A few months ago we also welcomed a new inmate frog technician to the program. Mr. Hensen has been hardworking and very eager to learn all things Oregon spotted frog. He plans to study marine biology when he is released. The program’s other frog technician, Mr. Davis, remains on the team. He has done an excellent job using his experience to help train Mr. Hensen. It is shaping up to be another successful season!

Thank you Marko!

Celebrating a Successful Inaugural Season for the Butterfly Program at Mission Creek

Celebrating a Successful Inaugural Season for the Butterfly Program at Mission Creek

by Graduate Research Associate Dennis Aubrey

The Sustainability in Prisons Project’s newest program, the rearing of Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women, has just concluded its first season. A second generation of more than 3500 caterpillars has now safely gone into diapause, and the effort can officially be considered a complete success. Some of the season’s highlights include:

More than 700 Taylor’s checkerspots were released onto South Puget Sound prairies. Six hundred of these were released as post-diapause caterpillars in early March, placed one at a time on available host plants. Another 101 were released as adults, following breeding and oviposition. These were placed carefully on nectar flowers or, if they chose to, simply allowed to flutter off across the prairie.

Breeding activities were also highly successful. Males and females were crossed according to specific lineage pairings designated by staff at the Oregon Zoo to preserve genetic diversity. Seventy-two mating introductions were made, with 32 of these resulting in a successful pairing. From these, 3,515 eggs were laid. 3,395 of these successfully developed into healthy caterpillars and entered diapause, a survivorship of 96.6%.

A novel research project was carried out at the facility, examining host plant choice by female checkerspots. This work is showing that they prefer to lay eggs on two native plants, harsh paintbrush and Washington-endangered golden paintbrush, over the exotic but well-documented host English plantain. This finding has the potential to alter restoration practices for the butterfly and possibly unite the recovery efforts for both it and the golden paintbrush.

Currently, in addition to caring for the 3,624 caterpillars in diapause at the facility, inmate technicians are working on end-of-season reporting, putting in host plant gardens around the greenhouse and tending the plants, and creating a butterfly coloring book for children visitors to the prison. Their work with the butterflies this season has been exemplary in every way, and the overwhelming success of the project’s first year is thanks to their tireless and meticulous work.

Undergraduate intern Caitlin Fate releases a Taylor's checkerspot on Scatter Creek Prairie, Spring 2012. Photo by D.Aubrey.

A Taylor's checkerspot lays eggs on a Golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta), a state-endangered plant.

To support the Taylor’s checkerspot program and others like it, click here to donate to SPP.

SPP Plant Profile: Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata)

SPP Plant Profile: Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata)
Asteraceae Family

Basic Information

Blanketflower is a tap-rooted perennial, with large showy yellow and reddish-brown flowers. Leaves are alternate, 3-6 inches long with coarsely toothed and deeply divided margins. The species is moderately long-lived, and re-seeds in abundance once established. Distributed throughout the northern part of North America and the Western United States, it’s found in dry open spaces in prairies, mountain foothills and roadside clearings.

Ecological Importance

Blanketflower stands as a nectar and food source, as well as providing resting and cover, for many important pollinators and beneficial insects. Edward fritillary (Speyeria Edwards) butterflies rely on the species as a nectar source in their adult stage. A moth species, (Schinia masoni), is camouflaged to specifically mimic the yellow ray flowers and purplish-brown disk flowers to aid in avoiding predators. Throughout Western North America, blanketflower is pollinated by the soft-winged flower beetle (Listrus senilis), recognized as a critical pollinator of the species. Blanketflower and its associated beneficial insects are main components of many northern grassland ecosystems, breaking down organic matter, increasing soil fertility and improving soil water-holding capacity and water infiltration.

Fun Facts:

Blanketflower’s drought tolerance and brilliant flowers make it a popular choice for residential and commercial landscapes. Its low water demand leads to its use in low watering zones of XeriscapeTM and water wise gardens. Furthermore, the mature leaves of blanket flower are unpalatable and its rough textured stems make this species deer-resistant, even though some whitetail deer will browse lightly at different times of the year. Finally, as long as soils are well draining, no serious pest or disease problems are associated with blanketflower, adding to its ease of growth in both the nursery and in backyards.

Close-up of Gaillardia aristata flowers. Photo by R.Gilbert.


Blanketflower on the prairie. Photo by R.Gilbert.

SPP Butterfly Internship Experience

SPP Butterfly Internship Experience

by SPP Undergraduate Intern Chelsea Oldenburg

Editor’s Note: SPP has had the pleasure of working with three wonderful Evergreen undergraduate interns during this spring quarter.  Over the next few weeks, blog visitors will have the chance to read about their experiences in the students’ own words.

After 8 weeks of working with the Sustainability in Prisons Project at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women as an intern for the butterfly program a lot of unexpected things have become commonplace for me. It’s amazing how quickly I acclimate to my surroundings. After only a few days of visiting, the prison guards, razor wire and coveralls seemed normal. As does manipulating the curled proboscis of a butterfly with a paper clip and watching her perfectly paint plantain leaves with bright yellow eggs.

So far my main work this quarter has been facilitating an oviposition preference study that Dennis Aubrey is doing for his masters thesis. This means observing which plants female Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies prefer to lay their eggs on.

The women are carrying out the study five or six days a week and so Dennis, Caitlin (another intern) or I rotate coming out to insure things are running smoothly, bring supplies and run a few of the preference trials ourselves. Usually we also get a chance to help with some of the daily chores of captive rearing. These chores include: feeding adult butterflies a honey-water mixture from a q-tip, transferring eggs into various containers with a paintbrush, freshening water and supplying plantain leaves to hungry caterpillars. Aside from housekeeping and study overseeing there is a lot of time to converse with the women from MCCCW that are working on the project. They seem to truly love the butterflies they are raising and I am always impressed by their fastidiousness, acute observations and consistent positive attitudes. The love seems to go both ways as the butterflies flourish under their care.  A couple of weeks ago I was sent home from The Oregon Zoo with many more larvae, pupae and adult butterflies to bring to MCCCW because of the success with their current stock. Maybe the women at Mission Creek can care for these transforming insects from a place of real understanding as they simultaneously undergo incredible personal transformations themselves.

For the last few weeks of my internship I am excited to erect some raised beds around the butterfly rearing greenhouse. After the frames are built and a lot of soil is shoveled in, we are going to fill the beds with native prairie plants, larval food plants and nectar flowers for feeding the adult butterflies. Two of the women I work with seem genuinely excited to help with the project. Although I will be sorry to end my visits to the prison at the close of this quarter it feels good knowing I will leave behind some nourishing infrastructure.

Want to support innovative educational opportunities and the rearing of endangered butterflies?  Donate to SPP by clicking here.