Conservation and Scientific Research
Environmental problems such as climate change and habitat degradation require innovative, responsive science. To connect society with ecological systems, scientists must work across the traditional boundaries of academia and research, and in turn learn from new audiences. In effect, both scientist and newcomer must become ambassadors to each other’s culture – learning the language, exchanging ideas and working toward common goals.
At the Sustainability in Prisons Project, we connect people inside and outside prison walls to create a collaborative, intellectually stimulating environment in which incarcerated men and women play key roles in conservation and advancing scientific knowledge. We encourage teamwork, mutual respect and a stewardship ethic among individuals who typically have little or no access to nature or opportunities in science and sustainability. At the same time, we give scientists a powerful opportunity to expand their work through the fresh perspectives and creative energy of the prison community.
With additional funding and support from visiting scientists, we hope to establish science projects throughout Washington’s prison system and with other “research ambassadors” such as the elderly in assisted living centers. At present, we have three projects underway, each involving inmates, college students and community partners:
Captive Rearing of Endangered Frogs
In early 2009, we began an unprecedented partnership with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to rear endangered Oregon spotted frogs, a Pacific Northwest species primarily impacted by habitat destruction and predation by exotic bullfrogs. Under the direction of Senior Research Scientist Dr. Marc Hayes, offenders and staff at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center work with Evergreen graduate students and other rearing institutions to augment the amphibian’s populations in the Puget Sound region.
Since 2009 two inmates have been employed as ecological research assistants inside the prison. Their responsibilities include feeding and cleaning the frogs; collecting data on water quality, growth, frog behavior and mortality; assisting with amphibian research studies, and installing and maintaining equipment within the “Frogga Walla” rearing shed. Each fall, frogs are released into protected wetlands at Joint Base Lewis McChord. As a result of their success, the captive rearing program at Cedar Creek has doubled capacity to accommodate up to 400 frogs. This program is supported by partner rearing institutions including Northwest Trek, Woodland Park Zoo, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, and the Oregon Zoo.
Captive Breeding of Endangered Butterflies
A new facility to breed and rear endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies was built by WDOC staff at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women in 2011 with funding from the Army Compatible Use Buffer program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Taylor’s checkerspots are a prairie dependent south Puget Sound butterfly which was once widespread in the region, but is now found only on a few scattered sites. With the guidance of biologist Mary Linders of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and staff of the Oregon Zoo, WDOC staff and inmates and students and staff of SPP this project will nearly double the rearing capacity for this species.
The facility is housed in a small purpose-built greenhouse with UV transmitting glass to provide the butterflies with the light they need for key metabolic activities. The Evergreen/SPP graduate students associated with the project get training from the Oregon Zoo endangered butterfly lab, and in turn help guide and teach the staff of 3-4 inmates. Up to 2500 checkerspots may be raised in a single year for release onto south Puget Sound prairie restoration sites, both on and off Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Inmates also captively breed the animals according to careful genetically sensitive protocols and participate in key research activities.
In partnership with The Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM) and U.S. Army, the Stafford Creek Corrections Center, Washington Corrections Center for Women and Shotwell’s Landing Conservation nursery are propagating over 300,000 native plants for the Joint Base Lewis-McChord military base and other Puget Sound area restorations sites, which protects the largest remaining portion of Puget Sound’s prairie ecosystem. Learning skills in native plant ecology and large-scale seed production, nearly 20 inmates and 4 Evergreen students work with Carl Elliot, SPP Conservation and Restoration Coordinator, to propagate over 40 different flower and grass species at the three conservation nursery sites.
The U.S. Army has provided much of the funding support for the conservation nursery programs including equipment, hoophouses, irrigation system and planting supplies. Education is an important part of each SPP conservation program. Inmates and WDOC staff participate in workshops, training, and lectures on Northwest landscapes and environmental restoration.
Beekeeping Training and Research
Several prisons including Cedar Creek and Stafford Creek corrections centers have beekeeping programs. Scientifically engaging and ecologically vital, beekeeping can be a profitable skill for a post-prison career, be it in honey and beeswax production or pollinating fruits and vegetables in orchards and farms.
Offenders learn about bee biology and behavior, hive construction and maintenance, beekeeping equipment and commercial business practices. Often located in rural areas, prisons are uniquely positioned to support the pollination of wild and commercial plants while helping scientists study the alarming threat of bee colony collapse.
Learn about Dr. Nalini Nadkarni’s Moss-in-Prison Project that provided the model for our activities today, including the scientific paper she co-published with a former inmate at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center.
Share your expertise in science or sustainability with the Sustainability in Prisons Project: Call for Presenters and Researchers.