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Grassland grouse population decreases in 2022

Grouse population in the Fort Pierre National Grassland declined by 15 percent in 2022, largely because of the ongoing drought in South Dakota.

The overall grouse population is 85 percent of 2021, which was a record-high year for grouse population in the grasslands, according to a U.S. Forest Service press release.

Most notably was a decline in prairie chickens, 504 males were observed in spring 2022 compared to the 655 males observed in spring 2021.

However, the number of male sharp-tailed grouse increased from 106 to 140 between 2021 and 2022.

The total grouse population has averaged around 300 since the mid-1980s. Over the last twenty years, both greater prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse populations have primarily remained stable or grown.

“I was a little surprised that the sharp-tailed grouse actually went up in numbers after last year. I was not surprised at all that the greater prairie chicken had gone down,” District Ranger Dan Svingen said.

The ongoing drought, which began in June 2020, is one of the largest contributing factors to the population decrease.

“The thing that I think was really damaging to us last year was we had record high and record dry conditions in early June, right when those birds started incubation or, for the earlier semester, to hatch. And boy, that’s just so tough on a chick to thermoregulate and be able to find sufficient moisture,” Svingen said.

Greater prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse both nest on the ground and require tall grass to hide their nests.

Because they start laying eggs as early as April, before sufficient grass growth, they’re dependent on dead grass from the previous year as cover.

However, the drought prevented extensive grass growth in 2021 leaving them more exposed to predators in 2022.

“This year the quality and quantity of nesting habitat is lower than what is typical due to continuing drought. Weather patterns over the next eight weeks will have a big impact on grouse populations this autumn as well as on those in spring 2023,” Svingen said.

Stanley County is currently experiencing severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

More than 22 percent of the state is experiencing severe drought. A little more than 76 percent of South Dakota is experiencing some kind of drought

The southwest corner of Stanley County is experiencing extreme drought.

SDSU Extension State Climatologist Laura Edwards said colder weather in the coming weeks might be a temporary reprieve but current projections show the drought will persist through summer.

“There’s a potential, can’t for sure say this, but there’s a potential for improving conditions here in the next few weeks or month. But as we get further into the summer. June, July and August, we have pretty high confidence in warmer than average temperatures, all across the region, and also increased chances of it being drier than average,” Edwards said.

Edwards said this drought is unusual because of its prolonged duration.

“We’ve already had two seasons of dry conditions, it looks like we’re going to get into a third. Having three consecutive years of drought really compounds the impacts. It’s different than if you have one year of drought, you can generally recover from that in short order. When you have a long duration drought like this, multiple seasons, multiple years, that can have a higher impact,” she said.

The drought has also affected the population of other wildlife in the Fort Pierre National Grassland both directly and indirectly.

“Our duck production is going to be way down because of the state of the water and those natural wetlands and stock ponds. Our fish population, 80-100 of those ponds support recreational fisheries, and that’s very hard to support, fish need water,” Svingen said.

Some ponds in the grassland are 80 percent below their typical amount of water, but thanks to recent rains some ponds in the east are actually overfilled.

Many natural wetlands are almost completely dry, Svingen said.

“It doesn’t take too many consecutive years of drought and you see a pretty big drop off (in grouse population),” Svingen said.


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Sabbatical offers time to reconnect, strengthen congregation
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On May 29, Pastor Emily Munger will hold her last sermon before going on a three-month sabbatical to reset, reconnect and ensure she doesn’t become indispensable to her congregation.

It might sound counterintuitive, but it’s one way to keep a congregation resilient and healthy.

Many people understandably look to their pastor for leadership, advice or a shoulder to lean on — it’s natural. But performing the role year after year without taking time to distance and reset could turn the pastor’s role from beneficial to detrimental.

How often pastors take time to reset or gain some healthy distance through sabbaticals varies between denominations. Munger, the pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ, said it could even vary between churches within the same denominations, like UCC.

“It’s the healthy choice to make,” Munger said about pastors taking sabbaticals. “But a lot of churches aren’t necessarily in a healthy position to make a healthy choice for themselves because the system itself might be riddled with anxiety.”

She found some of the anxiety stems from church boards worrying about potentially losing a pastor to other employment during their sabbatical. But she said part of the agreement before taking a sabbatical is a one-year commitment to return and remain the congregation’s pastor.

For Munger and First Congregational, a sabbatical comes once every five years. And the time away from leading a congregation is something Munger found critical for pastors to utilize. Munger officially marks five years with First Congregational on Aug. 1, but she received her call to the church five years ago in April when she began leading church events that summer.

Munger graduated from seminary school in Princeton, New Jersey in 2012 and served at another congregation in Columbia, South Dakota. But she didn’t complete a full five years while in Columbia, making this sabbatical her first.

“I will tell you, the pastors who’ve never taken a sabbatical and don’t take their vacations, we end up doing fitness reviews for them in the Committee on Ministry,” Munger said. “Because it’s just not healthy.”

She said some of the issues are stress related, while other issues include pastors becoming too critical in keeping a congregation going.

“Typically, they find too much of themselves in the identity as pastor and not enough as like a distinct human being who is outside the role of minister,” Munger said. “Sometimes the church thinks that the pastor is indispensable. Sometimes the pastor thinks that the pastor is indispensable. And the pastor should never be indispensable. This church should exist on its own — no matter what pastor comes and goes.”

She said her job as a pastor is to equip the congregation to continue without her.

“If I’m not doing that, I’m doing them a disservice, if that makes sense,” Munger said.

During her three-month absence, Pierre resident Nance Orsbon will take the reins, leading First Congregational’s members through Aug. 29, when Munger returns.

On Tuesday, Orsbon and Munger wrapped up a staff meeting at First Congregational and sat down in Munger’s office. The two have worked together to make the temporary transition as seamless as possible.

Orsbon isn’t an ordained pastor, but she has completed the Stephen’s Ministry Leadership program in Boston and Clinical Pastoral Education through Avera Health.

“I have been doing pulpit supply for, I think it’s been, over 30 years,” Orsbon said. “And have just felt called to be a part of that. I’ve done a lot of education to get to that point. But I personally didn’t feel the call to have to be fully ordained because I didn’t really want that as my vocation — to be the lead of a church 24/7 for year after year.”

Orsbon worked at Delta Dental and retired after spending 42 years with the company. She said small congregations are close to her heart, and Orsbon has had plenty of experience with them statewide and in Iowa.

“Going out a lot to Hayes, where I had very strong friend connections growing up, it just became important to me that those churches survived,” she said. “And they don’t have all the resources that somebody like a larger church in town would have. So, I’ve always been led to the smaller congregations.”

Munger said Orsbon had filled a critical need for many smaller congregations since it’s grown more difficult to find people for pastoral roles.

“It’s more and more the case nationally,” Munger said. “Nationally, there are fewer and fewer churches who have called ministers, especially rural churches here in South Dakota.”

Munger found Orsbon more than welcome to help fill her role during her absence since three months went beyond the typical pulpit supply needs and called for a more interim pastor.

During her three-month sabbatical, Munger said she would catch up on a stack of books and take time to create a healthy bit of distance. And that means staying away from Pierre and pastoral duties, giving the congregation a chance to thrive without her at the helm.

Munger’s sabbatical will also give her time to reconnect with extended family, which she found receives less of her attention while serving her congregation.

“Even if I take a week of vacation off, I’m constantly cycling through the people that I’m caring about,” Munger said about her congregation. “In essence, because they’re my family, because I love them, I’m constantly thinking about who needs tended, who needs care for, who needs to reach out.”


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Noem visits Madison while surveying damage

A storm carried 100-mph wind gusts to Madison and the rest of South Dakota on Thursday, damaging homes and leaving thousands without power.

No injuries or deaths have been reported in the city, Mayor Roy Lindsay said Thursday. One person in Sioux Falls died during the storm, The Argus Leader reported.

Gov. Kristi Noem was in Madison on Thursday evening while surveying storm damage and planned to send National Guard troops on Friday to help with cleanup, he said, adding he has talked to local contractors to also help.

Lindsay said several businesses and farms have been destroyed or heavily damaged.

Photos from across Lake County showed trees uprooted, power lines down, roofs ripped to shreds and debris scattered across lawns.

There are two dumps in town for trees and other debris; residents can get more information on them at the command center set up at the police station. An assessment over the next couple of days will determine whether storm victims are eligible for FEMA funding.

He said no determination had been made yet on whether the storm event was a tornado. The National Weather Service in Sioux Falls said Thursday night that no tornadoes had been confirmed in the area.

But the area was battered by strong winds. Madison Municipal Airport recorded a 97-mph wind gust around 5 p.m. Thursday, Meteorologist Philip Schumacher said Thursday. Lindsay said wind north of Madison was clocked at 120 mph.

The Madison Central School District canceled school on Friday due to the storm, the district said on Facebook.

The East River Electric Power Cooperative was working to restore power Thursday evening and had 40 substations without power. That was down from 49 substations earlier in the day.

Lindsay said he has been given no solid timeframe for when power will be restored. He said the biggest issue is damage outside of Madison that energy providers must repair before the city is reconnected.

“It’ll be a while,” he said. “That was the answer, ‘It’ll be a while.’”

More than 25,000 people across the state were without power Thursday evening, the Argus Leader reported.

Red Cross shelter

Gene Wockenfuss, director of the Madison Community Center, said the Red Cross has set up there for anybody who needs temporary or overnight shelter.

They had several people stop by to see what was available just in case, and one man staying there as of late Thursday.

“We’re going to leave it open until the lights come on,” he said.

Wockenfuss said there were more than a dozen children in an after-school program and several adults in the building when the storm struck about 5:10 p.m. He said they took everybody to the locker rooms in the inner part of the building and “sheltered in place.” He said the storm raged more than an hour.

He said a woman took a video that appeared to show “a partial tornado by the elementary school.”

Damage, more damage

Tammy Cole-Rebelein’s family has owned a farm west of Madison for 150 years but was in Brookings, 45 minutes northeast, when the wind struck.

When the sirens went off, they headed for the basement. ”It came very fast, very fast,” she said.

They lost a 100-year-old barn and parts of other buildings but their horses were fine other than one minor injury.

“We’re going to assess the damage and start the cleanup,” she said Thursday evening. “It’ll be a rebuilding process for a lot of families.”

She said she believes they experienced a mix of straight-line winds and tornadoes — her mother said wind alone wouldn’t have left some of the twisted damage they saw.

Her daughter, Gabrielle Rebelein, the 2022 Teen Miss Rodeo South Dakota, detailed the damage to their farm in a Facebook post, but noted, “There were many other friends that suffered greater disaster… If I know anything, it’s that the people of South Dakota are resilient, hardworking, and always willing to lend a helping hand.”

Madison city buildings also saw some damage, said Lindsay, the mayor. Doors have been blown in on municipal buildings but they’re all standing. “We’re not in too bad of shape,” Lindsay said.

He said part of the roof at the Dakota Prairie Playhouse at DSU had been blown off and that he does not have a damage report yet out of the airport.

He said Thursday that police will have extra patrols overnight to guard against vandalism “because the town is totally dark.”


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