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Shiawassee Refuge staff prepare the soil of a refuge field and plant it with native prairie seedlings raised by inmates at the Saginaw Correctional Facility.
Shiawassee Refuge staff prepare the soil of a refuge field and plant it with native prairie seedlings raised by inmates at the Saginaw Correctional Facility.
Credit: Ed DeVries, USFWS
Saginaw Correctional Facility inmates prepare native prairie plants they grew from seed for transplanting on Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan.
Saginaw Correctional Facility inmates prepare native prairie plants they grew from seed for transplanting on Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan.
Credit: Mark Langschwager

Inmates Lend a Hand for Conservation

Inmates at the Saginaw Correctional Facility in Michigan are helping Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge conserve wildlife habitat by growing native prairie grass and wildflowers from seed. 

In a program modeled after a now-defunct Minnesota effort, prison inmates prepare and sow seeds collected from the refuge and tend plants once they’ve germinated. When the plants are mature, they are trucked to the refuge for transplanting on former cropland.

“It’s a great program,” says deputy refuge manager Ed DeVries, who last year helped transplant 60,000 prison-grown forbs and prairie grasses. “We’re seeing the results in some of fields planted with these seedlings.”

Ed Rosek, administrative assistant to the warden, shares DeVries’s enthusiasm. “We’re growing prairie cordgrass,” he says. “Everyone told us we couldn’t grow it from seed, and we’re doing it.” Rosek, who holds a degree in natural resources, hopes to see the program spread to other areas in Michigan and beyond.

This year— the program’s third— refuge staff planted more than 10,000 seedlings of 17 lakeplain wet prairie species in one 44-acre field. Among the species planted were:  swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), spotted Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum), common boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). The planting was funded through a grant with Ducks Unlimited. Another 30,000 prison-grown plant plugs — including Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), turtlehead (Chelone glabra) and mad-dog skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) — were planted in a separate 15-acre field.

The native plants, DeVries says, are especially important to nesting birds and pollinators — butterflies, bees, moths and beetles.  Some pollinators use only specific plants to lay their eggs; their larvae depend on these plants to grow.  Native grasslands also provide cover for ground-nesting birds, such as eastern meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows and indigo buntings. Healthy stands of native plants can also help keep out invasive plants.

The inspiration for the effort was a seed-growing partnership established several years ago between Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota and a prison, now closed, in Appleton, Minn.

Rosek measures success not just by how much prairie is restored but what happens long-term. “If I could take my grandson one day to Shiawassee Refuge and show him this is what the land looked like before we suburbanized the area, that’s a success. If I can take one prisoner, and maybe get him a job, or he goes back out on the streets and doesn’t come back because he learned he can contribute to society, that’s success.”

New spots in the horticultural class at Saginaw Correctional Facility are wait-listed. Lifers get priority because growing wild seed can be a long process. The project also teaches some shorter-term inmates marketable skills. One former inmate recently helped tend an urban garden at Gateway ReEntry Center in Detroit. “They’re sending us e-mail that he’s doing head and shoulders above everyone else,” says Rosek.

For more information on Shiawassee Refuge, visit: http://www.fws.gov/midwest/shiawassee

 

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