Growing Sagebrush in Prisons for Restoration in Wyoming

By Isabella Norton, May 2024

The Sagebrush in Prisons Project (SPP) and the Wyoming Honor Farm is off to a great start this season! Like the other SPP projects we manage in ten other prisons, incarcerated adults in Wyoming engage in the meaningful conservation work of growing sagebrush seedlings for restoration projects across the state. In the heart of the sagebrush sea, this work is particularly relevant and contributes to a growing state and national effort towards restoration of this incredible habitat. The crew of four has diligently sowed over 30,000 sagebrush seeds and is now watching as seedlings emerge and start to grow true leaves!

Sowing the seeds of restoration. Photo credit: Josh Oakleaf, WDEQ-AML

The first lesson the crew learned this year was how many different types of sagebrush there actually are! We are growing for the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s Abandoned Mine Lands Program, Idaho Fish and Game, Grand Tetons National Park, and five different Bureau of Land Management field offices. Each office sends the Honor Farm site specific seeds for their projects, which includes 2 different species and 3 subspecies of sagebrush. We are also growing a few other native plants including bitterbrush, tansy aster, and milkvetch.

The season kicked off in March with the mixing of soil. Volunteers from Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) joined the crew in the first week as we mixed soil, filled cone-tainers, and sowed seeds. In the following weeks, the crew watered everyday keeping a watchful eye out for any germinated cones. Towards the end of March, seedlings began to emerge, and the greenhouse started to come alive. Now, the crew is tasked with thinning out the cone-tainers that have too many seedlings – a good problem to have! The goal is to have one healthy seedling per cone by the end of the season.

Sagebrush seedlings coming up! Photo credit: Wyoming Honor Farm staff

Educational opportunities are an important component for SPP. Beyond weekly lessons, we also bring in guest speakers on site to add a broader perspective to the program. So far this season, a Wyoming Fish and Game representative gave a talk about birds of prey, bringing with him in a falcon and great horned owl – what a hoot! A Wyoming Wildlife Federation government affairs director also visited, giving a talk about wild horse management. This was particularly interesting as the Honor Farm has a program where they gentle Wyoming mustangs rounded up off the range by BLM—that are then adopted by members of the public.

A view of the Wyoming Honor Farm greenhouse. Photo credit: Wyoming Honor Farm staff

Along with guest speakers, we are also conducting an experiment to find the best soil mix for growing sagebrush. We are experimenting with mycorrhizal inoculations and several peat and coconut coir mixes. The crew is excited to see the results. Going forward with the season, the crew will continue to take care of the sagebrush seedlings until October when they are planted on the range. We are also looking to design and grow a native plant garden at the Honor Farm near our greenhouses. We hope this project can add to the hands-on learning for the sagebrush crew and provide a peaceful space for humans and animals alike on the Honor Farm grounds.

IAE’s soil experiment to find the best soil mix for growing sagebrush. Photo credit: Wyoming Honor Farm staff

Our sincere thanks to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality Abandoned Mine Lands Program and to the Bureau of Land Management for funding and supporting this project.