Local rancher, scientist keeping an eye on climate change

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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA TV) -- Bill Capehart didn't always believe in human caused climate change.

"I used to be what some people call a luke warmist," said the affable School of Mines professor of civil and environmental engineering.

But he says the evidence over the decades -- particularly snow melt on the Arctic ice pack -- convinced him: burning fossil fuels fuels climate change.

"One big issue that is causing the increase in global temperatures is indeed digging up prehistoric salad and setting it on fire," he said.

Capehart helped host a conference at the School of Mines that contributed research and data to the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment published by the federal government. The document paints a bleak picture of climate already rapidly changing.

“The impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future," the report's authors wrote. "But the severity of future impacts will depend largely on actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the changes that will occur."

For the first time, this fourth installment of the government's climate report includes a breakout section on changes occurring in the Northern Great Plains region that includes South Dakota.

A key takeaway for our region? Moisture incidents will fluctuate and temperatures will rise.

"What we do wind up seeing is a lot of variability from year to year and we also see the temperatures increasing. That is the one we really have the most certainty," said Capehart.

And that means more wildfires are likely.

"We're going to see warmer temperatures during the warm season months and high temperatures and wildfires are very well correlated," said State Fire Meteorologist Darren Clabo.

And the region will also see new land management puzzles.

What can be done? One local outfit thinks going Back to the Future is the answer.

"We're trying to rehabilitate this land back to its native state," said buffalo rancher Colton Jones overlooking some of his bison herd grazing near the Cheyenne River in eastern Pennington County. "because in the long run we believe with climate change this is a more sustainable paradigm."

Jones and his colleagues at Wild Idea Buffalo are looking to bison for clues.

"Our main goal is to just let buffalo be buffalo. We're not trying to get them to conform to us if anything we'd like to conform our practices to accommodate them. They're a pretty vital piece of the ecosystem," he said.

As are native grasses. Wild Idea is working to reintroduce native species on land that had previously been tilled for row crops.

All of which hopefully adds up to a better future in a changing environment.

"We're trying to rebuild something that's been has been lost for a long time," said Jones,"by putting things that have evolved here and have been engineered by nature for thousands of years back on the landscape because they've proven themselves to be better at surviving out here."