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Prisoners nurture endangered butterflies

This Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly is being raised at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women in Belfair, Wash. (Associated Press)
This Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly is being raised at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women in Belfair, Wash. (Associated Press)

BELFAIR, Wash. – In a small greenhouse just outside the fence at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women, nearly 1,800 rare butterflies await release into what conservationists hope will become their new permanent homes in prairies around Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

However, anticipation might be greater among the small group of inmates who are rearing those butterflies from egg to maturity.

“When I first got sent to Mission Creek, I knew there was a purpose why I was coming here,” said Carolina Landa, 29, of Quincy, who is serving a sentence for drug-related crimes.

Landa said she has found that purpose in the butterfly research program sponsored by the Evergreen State College and the Sustainable Prisons Project, a partnership between the college and the Department of Corrections that promotes science and nature learning in prisons.

Over the past three months, Landa and three other inmates have nurtured a group of the rare Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies, listed as a state endangered species and candidate for the federal endangered species list since 2002. Much of the population lives near or on a 7,000-acre range and artillery impact area at Lewis-McChord, although its habitat once spread from lower British Columbia to central Oregon.

The first group of adult butterflies at Mission Creek reached maturity in the past few weeks with 93 percent survival – a rate so high, conservationists from the Oregon Zoo endangered butterfly lab are sending their Taylor’s checkerspots to be bred at Mission Creek.

“We spend a lot of time talking about all kinds of ecology issues and conservation issues,” said Dennis Aubrey, an Evergreen graduate student who guides the inmates through their work during several weekly visits. “It’s far from just prairies and butterflies.”

Recent experiments have determined another endangered species, the golden paintbrush, to be a suitable host plant for the Taylor’s checkerspot. Scientists have long suspected the species to be compatible, but the Mission Creek findings offer hefty incentive to unite two costly conservation projects into one research venture.

In the coming months, Aubrey and the inmates hope to begin releasing caterpillars and adults into six sites around the south Puget Sound area.