Adults in custody at California City Correctional Facility help support desert tortoise habitat

By Tyler Knapp

April 2020

Days before the CA statewide shelter in place order, Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE) was fortunate to kick off a new project to support the Mojave desert tortoise - please read on to learn more.

What do the Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) and the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) have in common? Besides both of them being at-risk animals living in dry, arid ecosystems, they both now have native forage plants being grown for them by incarcerated people. The Sagebrush in Prisons Project involves propagating sagebrush plugs for the greater sage-grouse at nine prisons in five states. IAE’s newest prison project, located at California City Correctional Facility (CAC), involves plant propagation to increase the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)’s seed bank used for restoration of plants that the desert tortoise uses for forage and cover. Threatened Mojave desert tortoises are well adapted to living in harsh desert environments, where they spend much of their lives underground in burrows. Habitat loss and invasion by non-native invasive plants and animals threaten the survival of this gentle desert denizen.

After ten months of coordination, planning, constructing tables, shade structures, water lines, and hiring a contractor and adults in custody (AIC) team, the CAC project was kicked off on March 16th, 2020. That first morning began with everyone getting in a circle to introduce themselves, explain what motivated them to participate, and to say the name of their favorite plant. AIC then began making a custom potting soil mix by combining compost, sand, and perlite based on a recipe provided by the Joshua Tree National Park Native Plant Nursery. AIC then carefully filled various sized plant containers and germination trays with soil and began the meditative process of slowly placing a few small seeds into each pot. CAC will be growing four native perennials and three annual plants that are a favorite food for the desert tortoise.

Desert needlegrass Achnatherum / Stipa speciosum  
Desert pepperweed Lepidium fremontii 
Desert marigold Baileya multiradiata
Eastern Mojave Buckwheat Eriogonum fasciculatum

Smooth Desert Dandelion Malacothrix glabrata
Desert Indianwheat Plantago ovata
Chia Salvia columbariae 

Adults in custody (AIC) prepare soil trays at California City Correctional Facility

Finished pots sown with desert marigold seeds

AIC are still watering the seeds daily, and are working on setting up a field area within the prison yard to direct seed annuals and later in the summer to transplant perennials. In late summer, the crew will carefully collect seeds from the plants they grew and celebrate by sending the seeds to the BLM seed bank for future grow out of native plants for tortoise habitat restoration.

IAE and Mojave desert tortoises everywhere wish to thank the BLM in Washington D.C. for funding this project, and Judy Perkins (BLM botanist) for her valuable guidance.  We appreciate IAE contractor Uma Nicole’s hard work, and staff and AIC at CAC for their dedication and support of this worthwhile project.


Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)

Range map of the Mojave desert tortoise.