BELFAIR, Wash. — For a small cadre of inmates at Mission Creek Corrections Center, raising a delicate species of butterfly has implications for the nation's defense.

A new greenhouse at the prison off Sandhill Road has been built to replenish the endangered Taylor's checkerspot butterfly, whose continued demise could cause interruptions to an artillery range at Joint Base Lewis McChord.

That's because the butterfly, already listed as endangered in Washington, could make the federal endangered species list — and one of its last remaining habitats is near and on a 7,000-acre range and artillery impact area on the base.

Should the butterfly be placed on the federal endangered species list, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife could direct the use of the butterflies' remaining habitat to ensure their survival, according to Jim Lynch, a biologist with the base's fish and wildlife program.

If the inmates are successful, however, butterflies raised in Belfair will be moved to inhabit prairies in the south Puget Sound area, boosting their dwindling population.

The checkerspot butterfly, once plentiful on prairies and grasslands from lower British Columbia to central Oregon, has been reduced to about four isolated areas in Washington and Oregon because of a loss of habitat. Of the four, More than 1,000 of the butterflies currently inhabit the artillery impact area, making it one of the last — and the largest — populations of them, Lynch said.

The butterflies flourished on the base land, where fires from the exercises burned and created open prairie habitat, Lynch said. But state fish and wildlife officials and conservation groups are hoping to introduce the species — cultivated by the Belfair prison program — to new prairies in the South Sound area.

Kelli Bush, manager for what's known as the sustainable prisons project at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, is optimistic the inmates will succeed.

"We like to think of it as a win-win, win-win-win," she said, noting the benefits to the military, local biologists, the inmates who gain a unique skill set, and of course, the butterflies themselves.

The prison's greenhouse, erected by inmates at the prison, was built with a $30,000 grant from the Department of Defense, she said.

The Sustainable Prisons Project was born in 2004 as a way to connect scientists with offenders, who could help with research and conservation and learn a skill. The project made headlines in 2009. when inmates at Cedar Creek Corrections Center south of Olympia began successfully raising the endangered Oregon spotted frog.

The project has also helped to raise more than 500,000 delicate prairie plants, Bush said.

The inmates in Belfair began raising Painted Lady butterflies in September as practice before embarking on the work of raising the rarer Taylor's checkerspot in February.

The work is delicate and intricate; inmates will use tools to move larvae — that look small next to a dime — onto leaves, among other tasks. They'll carefully monitor their growth and development. When they reach maturity, they'll be released onto a prairie in the South Puget Sound region.

Catherine Caruso, a spokeswoman at Joint Base Lewis McChord, said the base is hopeful the endeavor is successful in helping replenish the Taylor's checkerspot, and avert a possible extinction of the species.

"We all benefit from working to make sure that doesn't happen," she said.

Bush said the programs in the prisons have been successful because of the excellent notes and observations taken by the inmates and the amount of time they can devote to them. It gives them a sense of accomplishment in what can be a bleak environment.

"You see them light up when they talk about their work," she said. "They know they're making a contribution."

Information from: the Kitsap Sun