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Ft. Pierre's first mural underway amid downtown improvements
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A collaboration between Fort Pierre Tourism, the city, local businesses and artist Jill Kokesh has the city’s first large-scale mural underway. And the 90-by-20-foot project could lead to more art decorating the streets of Fort Pierre in the future.

Kokesh said taking the project from idea to reality is complex, but she is excited to paint the community’s first mural.

The mural is something Fort Pierre Mayor Gloria Hanson hopes will promote the downtown area and catch people’s attention as they drive through the city.

“We’ve waited a long time to do these two alleys because they’re really important to the downtown area,” Hanson said about improvement projects in the area. “And along with that, it’s exciting to me that the business owners have gotten involved and want to make improvements too.”

Walking down Deadwood Street on Thursday, Hanson pointed to faded historical painted signs on buildings surrounding The Chuckwagon and Chateau Lounge, like the large Pepsi sign, as potential projects in the future. Hanson sees the improvements as means to highlight the business district’s potential and attractiveness.

The mural is going on the Hop Scotch’s wall facing Second Avenue. The Hop Scotch is not only providing space for the mural but is also moving its sign and fixing up the building’s facade in the process.

The mural also provides the city with a chance to promote its brand while paying tribute to its roots.

“We wanted it to be consistent with the Fort Pierre look that we use with our marketing and our logo and all those sorts of things,” Hanson said about the mural.

Tara Berg was the designer and art director who redesigned the Fort Pierre Tourism and City of Fort Pierre’s logo and brand identity. She also collaborated with Kokesh on coming up with a mural that works within that brand identity.

“So when Jill Kokesh was looking at painting the mural, I know that she wanted to stay true to the brand that’s been developed,” Berg said. “So she asked me for those fonts and colors and assistance in kind of like the larger layout so that she could move forward on painting and focus on the pieces she was going to be doing.”

As for Fort Pierre’s roots, the mural’s plans will depict scenes such as the Fort Pierre Chouteau, Great Plains Indians, Missouri River paddle boats and ranching cowboys.

“I’ll be working on the overall designs,” Kokesh said. “Right now, they are just kind of pictures that I’m going to be drawing inspiration from, so I will be putting my own kind of style into the scenes — the historical scenes.”

And Berg said the new mural in downtown Fort Pierre is a chance to showcase the city, and she is looking forward to the presence it’ll bring to the community.

“It should be wonderful,” she said. “Especially in the vantage point that it has as people are coming through. I’m excited. I know that our hopes and dreams were to have it before school started.”

Kokesh said she hopes to finish the mural in mid-October as she’ll be balancing the painting with her work as a full-time teacher at T.F. Riggs High School. And the project gives her students something to be excited about in seeing art applied to a local project.

“I’ve talked all about it, and they are excited,” she said. “I am having some of my students help me prime it.”

The large-scale outdoor project also needs to consider weather conditions. Kokesh said the paint doesn’t set right when it’s too hot or too cold out.

“The month of September into October are actually really good months to paint a mural,” she said.

Kokesh is no stranger to painting murals or art in general. The former photojournalist started teaching art in 1999 in the Lower Brule Indian Reservation and soon after relocated to Denver, Colorado, where she continued teaching and learning. One thing Kokesh found inspiration from was street art.

While Kokesh said she considers herself a mural painter and not a street artist, she found street art was something she always wanted to pursue.

In 2013, Kokesh moved back to her hometown of Fort Pierre and said it and Pierre had a lot of potential for art. She added that’s one of the reasons she decided to start pursuing murals.

And the significance of being tapped for Fort Pierre’s addition to the corner of Deadwood Street and Second Avenue isn’t lost on Kokesh.

“It is a great honor to paint the first one,” she said.


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Solid waste facility more than simple disposal
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From roads to bicycles, the City of Pierre and solid waste are keeping busy reducing its waste. And after 24 years as the city’s solid waste manager, Valerie Keller found the constant change is what she enjoys the most.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve closed a landfill, we’ve opened a new landfill, they were in the middle of a renovation of an old building for our baling facility, and in 2002, we had a fire that destroyed that facility,” Keller said. “So 2003 is the year we constructed our new landfill and we rebuilt this facility that we are currently operating in.”

A tour of the city’s Solid Waste Facility on East Park Street, sandwiched between a set of train tracks and the Pierre Indian Learning Center Soccer Complex, turns up a wide variety of options for recycling and waste disposal. Residents who don’t have metal recycling available to them can take their cans to the facility. Used paint can be picked up or dropped off at no cost. Used bikes can even be purchased for just $5.

Crushed asphalt, pulverized to a size of 2 inches or smaller, is also used by the city as an additive to gravel in construction projects.

“I think probably the bigger issue is gravel is kind of scarce in this part of the state, so we use it to stretch our gravel further,” City Engineer John Childs said. “It probably stretches it half again cost-wise for what we pay for commercial gravel.”

Keller said the city has been recycling asphalt for about 20 years.

“Before that I don’t know that there was a whole lot of asphalt to begin with, and at that time there wasn’t the crushing and the technology I guess you would say to really recycle those items and use them like they did, they would just get thrown into a rubble pit,” Keller said. “Same way with the concrete. The concrete has come a long way. We tried to recycle concrete when we did the asphalt, but we had no outlet for it, and we ended up with a really big pile of concrete that we couldn’t do anything with, and we ended up bidding out the pile, and paid somebody $100 to take the pile off our hands to get rid of it.”

Keller said the amount of concrete the city recycles each year is dependent on the number of ongoing local construction projects, but that the facility takes in 5,000 to 10,000 tons of concrete.

“It’s a good commodity out there right now to be able to have that material,” Keller said.

The facility takes in about 8,000 to 15,000 tons of asphalt and recycles more asphalt than concrete, Keller said, noting that concrete reuse is beginning to build momentum. She said 2,500 tons of concrete and 5,500 tons of asphalt were recycled through the city and the public in 2020. The facility also sold more than 50 bikes.

As far as any pandemic-related impact, Childs said construction put off by pandemic-related economic conditions has picked up significantly in 2021.

“Last year we backed off on our water main installation for that reason and so the Water Department’s a little bit behind, but right now we’re probably at a record level of projects,” Childs said.

Keller said the facility took in a considerable amount of customers last April and May as workers shifted from the office to their homes.

“Our spring is typically when people are doing their yard work and we had so many people that were now working from home, we were busier across the scale with garbage and construction debris than we ever have been in those months,” Keller said. “They were huge. The people were home, so they’re cleaning their garages, they’re doing their little honeydew projects and it was unbelievable. We had some days, weekdays, through a nine-hour day that we’re open, we had over 200 customers.”

Weekdays usually bring 120 customers, Keller said.


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State songbird research helps track long-term trends
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Many people are aware ranchers, researchers and government agencies tag everything from livestock animals to mountain lions and bears. But what people might not be aware that the State of South Dakota has tagged and tracked songbirds for nearly 30 years.

The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department began its songbird banding project in 1992 with a Farm Island Nature Area station to document their cottonwood forest habitats usage along the Missouri River during spring and fall migrations.

Department spokesman Nick Harrington said these habitats have continued to decline in the more than 50 years since Lake Sharpe’s creation.

“In the spring of 2004, we opened a second banding station at Fisherman Point, located within the Oahe Downstream Recreation Area,” Harrington said. “The year 2011 was the exception to the consecutive string of spring and fall banding sessions when extreme flooding prevented access to the sites.”

The first step is to capture the birds safely. Crews start with setting up very fine “mist” nets, which they watch closely. While the traps could capture other small animals, they are not strong enough to capture large animals or humans.

“Because we are working in publicly accessible areas, we remove all nets and related materials every day, so we don’t catch nocturnal species such as owls or bats,” senior wildlife diversity biologist Eileen Dowd Stukel said. “We have occasionally caught turkeys and ducklings and have had pheasants hit and likely tear through nets without being caught. We’ve also had deer, dogs, and people tear through nets.”

Sometimes visitors approach the researchers with concerns about the birds’ safety.

“As with any effort to sample or trap fish or wildlife, there can be injuries or deaths no matter how careful you are, but bird banding is a highly regulated activity that requires extensive preparation, experience, and detailed record-keeping,” Dowd Stukel said.

Harrington added that bird banding is a safe practice when properly conducted.

Although bird banding can sound fun, it’s an ongoing learning process and not an easily learned task.

Silka Kempema is one of the wildlife biologists with Game, Fish and Parks who bands migratory songbirds in the Pierre and Fort Pierre area.

“Banding migratory songbirds is challenging,” Kempema said. “My skills as a bird bander are improved each season I set up mist nets and band birds. Each season I become more knowledgeable about species that migrate through our area and even those that breed in our area. Each season I learn something new about a species or the technique, and each season I find out I still have lots to learn.”

Game, Fish and Parks wildlife biologist Casey Heimerl also found it takes time to get bird banding right and build the necessary skills.

“It has been a rigorous process to become a competent bird bander, requiring knowledge of safe handling practices in addition to being able to determine species, sex and ages of the birds we capture,” she said. “The learning process never ends. I am still picking up new information every banding season.”

Heimerl added bird banding is an excellent way to drum up more public involvement in their work, especially regarding non-game species.

“Many people have probably observed sparrows or finches in their backyard, but to see one up close brings another level of respect and appreciation for the species,” she said.

Dowd Stukel found banding should ideally have two people involved. But when the sites typically have few birds at any given time, she said a single experienced bander could usually handle things.

“If we are experiencing higher volume than usual, we have several strategies to make sure bird safety is the top priority,” Dowd Stukel said. “We can call in more help. We can push up nets as we empty them to make sure we catch up. We can release birds without banding them. We also monitor the weather to avoid banding when conditions may turn cold and windy or become very hot. Our goal is to minimize the time birds are in the nets or waiting for banding.”

And on those busy days, a second experienced bander helps reduce the time birds spend in the nets.

Birdwatchers and enthusiasts could learn much through volunteering and getting hands-on experience under expert supervision.

Dowd Stukel said they welcome visitors interested in seeing birds up-close and learning about banding as a monitoring technique. She said researchers had even allowed visitors to release a bird before when safety permitted it.

“Otherwise, we do not allow visitors to touch birds in the net or handle them,” Dowd Stukel said.

The banding period ranges from late April to early June in the spring and late August to mid-October in the fall.

Game, Fish and Parks use a passive operation — lacking lures or baits. The researchers identify species, sex and age. They also take several measurements and band each bird with a uniquely numbered band on its leg before sending them on their way.

Recaptured birds get recorded, weighed and examined for fat deposits.

“There are definitely banded birds still in these areas. Many species live much longer than you might expect,” Dowd Stukel said. “We use a resource on the USGS Bird Banding Lab site that allows us to compare our recaptures with known longevity data.”

Information gathered through the banding project is wide-ranging. In 2016, there was a comprehensive 25-year report on the effort, which Dowd Stukel said helps researchers identify trends.

“These days, long-term data sets are increasingly rare, and we feel lucky to have been able to continue this project as long as we have to contribute to knowledge of migratory birds and to document the importance of these two small areas of habitat for migratory and resident birds,” she said. “From our long-term data set we have been able to gather valuable information such as changes in species composition over time or the impacts of major events like the 2011 flood.”

Dowd Stukel said they speculated the scouring of vegetation and shifting sandy areas might have benefited weedy annual plants, which might have helped some species in the fall of 2012.

“Examples are Lincoln’s Sparrow and Clay-colored Sparrow,” she said. “European Starlings are fairly common at Farm Island, particularly along the river. We catch almost none of the area’s invasive species, such as starlings, Eurasian Collared-Doves, and House Sparrows, at these two sites.”

The team also records hybrids — a cross between two species — and intergrades — a cross between two subspecies — Harrington said.

“Bird banding is an extremely valuable tool used by wildlife biologists that help us learn a wide variety of information on songbirds using these sites, including life spans, fidelity to breeding locations, migration timing and impacts of changing habitats to bird populations,” Heimerl said.

And banding songbirds is providing researchers with valuable data on both the birds and their environment.

“Bird banding provides the basic biological information needed to effectively conserve a species such as life span and movement — dispersal and migration,” Kempema said. “Long-term banding stations such as ours help paint a more detailed picture of how birds are responding to changes in the environment. Banding stations also provide the cooperation and skill needed for large-scale research projects that require data that is collected from birds that are in-hand — i.e. feather or blood samples.”


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