How climate change threatens South Dakota’s protected landscapes

State and local governments offer few plans or policies

By: - May 30, 2023 12:30 am
The Palmer Gulch Fire burns in October 2022 in the Black Hills. (Courtesy of Black Hills National Forest)

The Palmer Gulch Fire burns in October 2022 in the Black Hills. (Courtesy of Black Hills National Forest)

Swaths of South Dakota water, grasslands and forests are under federal protection, but climate change recognizes no boundaries. 

Scientists say South Dakota’s protected lands are vulnerable to pest infestation, wildfire, drought, flooding and more extreme weather in the decades to come.

That ranges from a wild stretch of the Missouri River to grasslands in central South Dakota to the Black Hills.

Those changes threaten not only the livelihood of the landscapes and their ecosystems, but South Dakota as a whole: its conservation efforts; its two largest industries, tourism and agriculture; and the natural resources residents rely upon.

Only a handful of local governments in the state are taking steps to adapt to climate change, such as the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s Climate Adaptation Plan, Spearfish and Black Hills State University’s Climate Resiliency Plan, and Rapid City’s acceptance of federal climate funding to reduce greenhouse gases and other air pollution.

South Dakota rejected such funds, and the state lacks climate policy in general. The state’s Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources declined to answer South Dakota Searchlight’s questions regarding climate policy and studies.

Kara Hoving, communications director for climate action advocacy group SoDak 350, said South Dakota has the capacity to provide solutions, such as wind and solar energy, which can reduce the greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. Some agricultural practices can also store carbon in the ground and provide other environmental benefits.

“We just need courageous leadership at the state level that will prevent the worst impacts from happening in our state,” Hoving said.

Grasslands, ranching threatened by wildfire, drought & heat 

The Fort Pierre National Grassland supports dozens of ranching families in central South Dakota, with over 52,000 animals grazing on leased portions of the 116,000 acres of protected, mixed grass prairie.

Scientists expect the region to experience an increase in weather volatility — wet springs with flooding paired with hot, dry summers; or heavy blizzards followed by high temperatures and fast snowmelt — like much of South Dakota.

Photo of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, which features long-grass prairie landscapes
Buffalo Gap National Grassland is located in southwestern South Dakota spanning several counties. (Courtesy of USDA)

Those implications threaten vegetation management programs and elements critical for native grass growth and production, said Dan Svingen, district manager at the Fort Pierre National Grassland. That could devastate diversity and produce a monoculture pasture of invasive grasses, forecasting similar challenges for ranchers and farmers across the state.

In the last 20 years, Svingen has seen a “dramatic increase” in invasive grasses such as smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass. Hotter summers with less precipitation impair growth for native grasses and other plants throughout the state, possibly ushering in opportunities for invasive species to take root. As weather volatility increases, it’ll be harder to design management methods, such as controlled burns, to target exotic plants. 

“When you just have one type of grass, for example smooth brome, that has good protein quality early in the spring, but then that’s not the case later in the year,” Svingen said. “In a native prairie, you’d have different species of grasses growing throughout the season. Something is lost with the quality of forage when you are left with a monoculture.”

Wildlife at Fort Pierre National Grasslands. (Courtesy of USDA Forest Service)
Wildlife at Fort Pierre National Grassland. (Courtesy of USDA Forest Service)

Despite the uncertainty, the grasslands have partnered with a local grazing association, researchers and other organizations to identify grazing and management practices over the next decade that adapt to the changing climate and benefit native growth. The study began last year, and will test out the first of altered treatment methods this year.

“The long term solution is intricately linked to building more ecological resilience,” Svingen said. “The more diversity in a plant community, the more likely you’ll be able to deal with whatever the world throws at you.”

Wildfires, pests & flooding threaten Black Hills tourism

Climate change will extend the tourism season across South Dakota and the Black Hills, but shorter winters and hotter summers that come with it will hinder the industry, reports suggest.

Over the last century, the average temperature in the Black Hills rose by about 2 degrees. The intensity and frequency of heavy rains has increased, and winters have shortened with reduced snowpack.

A May 2023 view of wildfire smoke from Canada cloaking the Black Hills. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight, via EcoFlight)
A May 2023 view of wildfire smoke from Canada cloaking the Black Hills. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight, via EcoFlight)

Increased water temperatures will change fish populations and impact recreational angling across the state. An increase in forceful storms will threaten campgrounds, roads, trails and other park resources and infrastructure. Hotter summer days will increase energy demands and may lead to more heat related illnesses. Mosquitos and other insects will hatch earlier in the season as winter is cut short, and will take longer to die off.

Wildfires, drought and insect outbreaks exacerbated by climate change will threaten the ponderosa pine trees that dominate the Black Hills region. Wildfire smoke from not only the Black Hills but also Canada and the western United States will further impact air quality across the state, keeping people indoors.

That all comes from a climate assessment report for the Black Hills National Forest. The national forest doesn’t have management plans in place regarding climate change, though, since it is still operating under forest assessments from nearly two decades ago, said Scott Jacobson, a spokesman for the forest.

A view of the Black Hills from Black Elk Peak. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)
A view of the Black Hills from Black Elk Peak. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

The national forest will spend the next few years revising its management plan based on such assessments and public input, he added.

But Black Hills State University and Spearfish have been preparing for extreme weather and climate change for nearly a decade. The university created a sustainability plan in 2014 and partnered with the city of Spearfish, Lawrence County, and Black Hills businesses such as a fish hatchery, sawmill and health care representatives to create a climate resiliency plan.

The plan has allowed the city and university to prepare for extreme weather events and has created a unified vision for sustainability, said Debbie Liddick, assistant director for facilities and sustainability at BHSU.

“If you want to plan for the future and have strong economic health, infrastructure stability, and good health and wellness for people,” Liddick said, “it’s good to put down on paper what you value in your community and how you’ll support that, and adapting to climate is part of that.”

Drought impacts Missouri River

The Missouri National Recreational River is a free-flowing river segment, managed by the National Park Service, that runs nearly 100 miles between South Dakota and Nebraska. Tom Downs, program manager for interpretation, education and outreach, has observed the river and its banks change over the last few years due to climate change — and especially drought.

The river is shallower than normal with bursts of flooding, Downs said.

“We’ve had drought,” he said. “The reservoirs don’t need to release more water to get rid of excess water.”

An aerial photo of the Missouri National Recreational River, which stretches nearly 100 miles between South Dakota and Nebraska. (Courtesy of MNRR)
An aerial photo of the Missouri National Recreational River, which stretches nearly 100 miles between South Dakota and Nebraska. (Courtesy of MNRR)

With hotter summer temperatures, that’ll lead to more evapotranspiration, which is when moisture is evaporated from the ground and plants. This creates drought periods even with heavy spring rains.

That leaves plenty of sandbars for the piping plover and least terns, but it threatens other wildlife and vegetation that relies upon the river — and South Dakota residents who rely on it for water. Downs is concerned about the cottonwood tree population along the river, which is being overpowered by red cedars.

Cottonwood trees help stabilize stream banks and act as natural windbreaks and filtration systems to reduce sedimentation. The trees are sacred to many Native Americans and are habitat for many animals, including the endangered northern long-eared bat.

“Addressing climate change is a core responsibility of the National Park Service, and we want to protect our parks unimpaired for future generations,” Downs said. “We’ll do what we need to do to change along with those changes and protect what’s in these parks.”


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Makenzie Huber
Makenzie Huber

Makenzie Huber is a lifelong South Dakotan whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent five years as a journalist with experience reporting on workforce, development and business issues within the state.