Inmates training to raise rare butterflies from artillery range
Prison inmate Carolina Landa stood inside a humid greenhouse Wednesday and gazed at the delicate butterfly in a clear plastic container, boasting about her role in its creation.
Seattle Times staff reporter
BELFAIR, Mason County — Prison inmate Carolina Landa stood inside a humid greenhouse Wednesday and gazed at the delicate butterfly in a clear plastic container, boasting about her role in its creation.
Landa, 29, and another inmate from Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women have spent eight hours a day, seven days a week for much of the year reading, writing and watching butterflies.
"It's a wonderful experience and it's very rewarding," Landa said. "It's very interesting and amazing to help populate life."
Earning an average inmate wage of 42 cents an hour, the two women are part of a training program ultimately designed to boost the population of Taylor's checkerspot, a once-thriving species of Northwest butterfly now considered threatened.
The women work inside the military-funded greenhouse on the grounds of the corrections center in Belfair. For now, they're working with a species of butterfly known as painted ladies, in preparation for the arrival next year of the much more delicate Taylor's checkerspot.
There are only a handful of known populations of Taylor's checkerspot (Euphydryas editha taylori) butterflies in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia.
The species has long been on the minds of local conservationists and the military because the largest concentration of the thumb-sized black, white and orange butterfly is on a swath of grassland that abuts a live-fire artillery range on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Butterflies, songbirds and woodland creatures have created their homes on the 7,000-acre prairies close to the range, said Mary Linders, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Some of the largest populations of four rare creatures — the Mazama pocket gopher, the streak-horned lark and the Taylor's checkerspot and Mardon skipper butterflies — are on the sprawling grounds of the base.
All four are up for review this year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as being potentially endangered, according to the military. If any of these creatures make the federal list, "it means the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the final say as to what the military does on its land,"said Linders, who often works on base.
For several years, The Evergreen State College has partnered with the state Department of Corrections to create jobs for inmates to study everything from mosses to frogs. In the course of their studies, the inmates also play an active role in increasing populations of wildlife.
Since 2009, there has been a program at Cedar Creek Corrections Center that allows inmates to assist in bolstering the dwindling population of the Oregon spotted frog, an animal once widespread in the Puget Sound area.
In the effort to increase populations of Taylor's checkerspot, the college has also joined with Joint Base Lewis-McChord, state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Zoo.
Landa, who is serving time for delivery of methamphetamine, says she knew little about butterflies before being hired to work in the program. She and another inmate work with Dennis Aubrey, a graduate student at The Evergreen State College, in learning about butterfly rearing and reproduction.
When the first Taylor's checkerspot caterpillars arrive at Mission Creek Corrections Center early next year, the prison will become the second Taylor's checkerspot captive-rearing habitat in the Northwest, said Kelli Bush, sustainable prisons project manager at the college. In 2003, the Oregon Zoo started working with Fish and Wildlife and Parks officials in Washington and Canada on a similar program.
The inmates will raise and release the Taylor's checkerspot, while still in a caterpillar stage, at 13 different sites in the Puget Sound region. The Oregon Zoo, which is also raising the butterflies, will release them at the same sites, Linders said.
"We don't just want to have them focus on producing butterflies. We want them to understand what they are doing," Bush said. "Hopefully, it inspires them to seek environmental careers or additional education, or, at the very least, it helps them understand our ecosystems better."
A grant from the military paid for supplies for the $35,000 greenhouse at Mission Creek Corrections Center; inmates built the facility, according to corrections staff.
"The primary focus of this effort is to get additional populations in the region," said Dave Clouse, fish and wildlife program manager at Joint Base Lewis-McChord
While Clouse said that there is still a "viable population" of Taylor's checkerspot on the base, he said that the number of butterflies appears to have dwindled.
"These populations can blink out for reasons other than human activity. It's critical to get as many [populations] established as possible," Clouse said.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or email@example.com
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