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UPDATE: Police find body in camper after 11th Street fire extinguished
A man was found dead inside a burned-out camper near downtown Rapid City on Friday afternoon following a tense encounter that saw police officers with raised guns protecting firefighters trying to squelch the blaze. 
 
The man's name was not released and the cause of death remains under investigation, said Rapid City police spokesman Brendyn Medina. 
 
The incident began shortly before 1 p.m. when officers responded to the 1700 block of 11th Street after receiving a report of a suicidal person who may be armed. Police learned after arriving at the scene that the person had entered a nearby camper with a gas canister. 
 
The camper caught fire, and some homes in the neighborhood were evacuated. 
 
Wilson Elementary School, located several blocks away on Franklin Street, was placed on secure status as a precautionary measure. This meant nobody was allowed in or out of the school. 
 
The fire spread to an outbuilding and a two-story residence, and as the camper burned, ammunition inside it exploded. Because authorities feared the person inside the camper could still be armed, police on the scene drew their weapons and provided protection to firefighters battling the blaze. 
 
After the fire was knocked down, the body of a man was found inside the camper, according to a news release from the Rapid City Police Department. "The RCPD and Pennington County Sheriff’s Office are currently working to positively identify the deceased individual."
 
It's unclear whether the dead man is the same person who was armed and threatened to commit suicide. 
 
As the emergency response wound down, neighbors emerged onto sidewalks and driveways, chatting, shooting photos of the scene or hugging each other. The fire ate away the camper's roof and left the sides blackened shards. The trees above wilted.

Jim Stone, who lived up the gulch from the property, walked down the steep road saying ash and soot from the fire speckled his back porch.

Another neighbor, Mike Keegan, had walked from his home on adjacent, tree-lined West Boulevard. He was returning from work, and first responders rerouted him home.

“I saw smoke and police cars,” Keegan said, “I knew something wasn’t good.”

Several animals — four dogs, two cats a handful of birds and a boa constrictor — were rescued from the home.

"The animals seem to be in good condition," said Lt. Jim Bussell, spokesman for the Rapid City Fire Department, adding that they showed signs of being scared. 


Local
top story
Voters to decide June 5 whether to roll back some victim’s rights

All registered voters get to decide June 5 whether the South Dakota Constitution should be changed regarding victim rights.

The question is whether guarantees now reach too far, after voters adopted the Marsy’s Law amendment in the November 2016 general election. The Legislature decided voters should consider the matter again.

State lawmakers voted 27-8 in the Senate and 61-6 in the House of Representatives to put another set of changes on the June ballot. The governor didn’t have a direct say because joint resolutions don’t go to his office. But Gov. Dennis Daugaard sent lobbyists upstairs to urge another statewide vote.

Among those asking the rights be reined back somewhat are county sheriffs and county prosecutors. They found the 2016 act difficult to administer and expensive.

Under the proposed changes, victims would have the choice to opt-in to their rights. Another change would notify fewer people after a crime. The South Dakota Newspaper Association also wanted changes. Law enforcement isn’t comfortable providing addresses of crime scenes that many news media want.

A change would let law enforcement seek public help with crimes. The Marsy’s Law organization agreed to support the changes.

House Speaker Mark Mickelson, R-Sioux Falls, brokered the deal. He originally wanted to ask voters for a pure repeal.

Jason Glodt, of Pierre, managed the pro-Marsy’s Law campaign in South Dakota in 2016. Voters approved the amendment with more than 59 percent support. Glodt now manages the campaign of state Attorney General Marty Jackley, who’s seeking the Republican nomination for governor in the June 5 primary election against U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem.

Jackley wrote the 2016 explanation and the 2018 explanation.

Jackley also convened a task force after Marsy’s Law passed in 2016. The task force dealt with challenges prosecutors, law enforcement and news reporters faced.

South Dakota already had state laws on crime victim rights. The last substantial changes came in 2014. California, Illinois, North Dakota, South Dakota and Ohio now have Marsy’s Law in their state constitutions.

Urging a “no” vote June 5 is Cory Heidelberger, of Aberdeen. He is a Democrat who is challenging state Sen. Al Novstrup, an Aberdeen Republican, in the November election.

Heidelberger is the official opponent against Amendment Y under South Dakota’s system of pro and con statements regarding each ballot measure.

“I wrote the con statement for the ballot question pamphlet because I was afraid no one else would ... and it turned out I was right! As far as I know, no one else submitted a draft con statement in response to the Secretary of State's public invitation for submissions,” Heidelberger said.

“Voters deserve to hear pro/con statements on every ballot measure, as there are at least two sides to every ballot issue,” he continued. He described Amendment Y as “bad for our constitution and for South Dakotans' rights.”

Heidelberger said he hasn’t heard any solid information about potential cost savings. He said he voted against Marsy’s Law in 2016 because it was redundant to the victim rights law first passed in 1991 and because he knew it would cause the “explosion” of costs.

“Finally, I voted no because it violates due process and the presumption of innocence, problems that Marsy's Fix leaves unremedied,” Heidelberger said.

Among those supporting the changes June 5 are Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom, Krista Heeren-Graber, of Sioux Falls, and Rep. Mickelson. Heeren-Graber is executive director for the South Dakota Network Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse. They jointly wrote the pro statement.

Thom, Heeren-Graber and Mickelson said there isn’t a collection point for counties’ higher expenses. They cited examples such as $206,500 for adding four people in Pennington County and legislative hearing testimony of at least $180,000 in Minnehaha County and nearly $200,000 in Lincoln County.

County governments are paying to automatically notify thousands of victims of misdemeanor offenses about their constitutional rights since the changes took effect. Counties can’t stop unless voters approve the opt-in, and then the savings won’t be known for six to 12 months.

“What it does is give the victim and the victim’s family members the same ‘co-equal’ rights as the accused and convicted — nothing more, nothing less,” Mickelson said.


Local
New federal plan emerges to save SD habitat and species in peril

Since 1937, South Dakota and other U.S. states have relied on the same federal funding plan to provide money to save endangered species. Since then, those revenues have proven to be uneven and generally in decline.

Coupled with human population growth and destruction of wildlife habitat, the slowed funding has led to what one national group says is a crisis in protection of animal species across the country.

A third of all species in America are now at risk of becoming endangered or extinct; in South Dakota, more than 100 species of wildlife, fish and insects are threatened.

Environmental groups and state wildlife agencies believe they may have found a solution: a proposal in Congress to shift $1.3 billion in federal royalties on energy and mineral extraction to the states to spend on wildlife and habitat protection.

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would generate $16 million a year to help threatened species in South Dakota and provide a big habitat boost for the pheasant population along the way. South Dakota now receives less than $500,000 a year under the 1937 congressional measure.

The bill filed by a Republican House member from Nebraska would give great authority to state governments over how to spend the money. Backers say the money could be used to buy and protect sensitive lands, create new natural areas for use by animals and people, or restore wetlands and other breeding grounds for species.

“What an incredible opportunity this would be,” said Kelly Hepler, secretary of the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department. “This is going to create a lot of exciting opportunities to make a difference in habitat.”

Even with 45 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House, passage is no sure thing.

Many lawmakers, including the three members of South Dakota’s congressional delegation, want to know more about what other programs may be cut in order to shift the $1.3 billion to wildlife protection.

In an interview on May 4, Republican Sen. John Thune, of South Dakota, said he needs to understand how the money would be generated and what existing programs might be lost. The bill language does not address what cuts might have to be made to compensate for moving the money to the states.

“Obviously if we can get more money for South Dakota to deploy some of the things we want to get done for wildlife preservation, that’s a good thing,” Thune said. “But I’ll have to look at how they propose to allocate or reallocate that money first.”

South Dakota supporters of the measure note that any habitat creation or protection efforts would have the side benefit of creating new cover and breeding grounds for the state’s pheasant population, a key driver of the state’s $1 billion annual outdoor recreation industry.

National wildlife counts show that nearly 12,000 species are in need of conservation action across the country. Of all species of wildlife in the U.S., a third are considered vulnerable and a fifth are imperiled or at high risk of extinction, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

The latest South Dakota Wildlife Action Plan, a 583-page document filed in 2014, lists about 101 so-called “species of greatest conservation need,” including 29 birds, 11 mammals, 12 reptiles, 15 insects, 21 fish and three mussels and mollusks.

Three species in South Dakota are endangered on both the state and federal levels: the whooping crane, the least tern and the pallid sturgeon. The piping plover is threatened at both levels.

Other species show up on one list or another. The peregrine falcon and black-footed ferret are both endangered on the state level, while the osprey, American dipper, northern river otter and false map turtle are threatened at the state level.

The common factor in the decline of any species is habitat reduction.

“We’re in peril and going downhill with the amount of habitat we’re losing in South Dakota,” said Chris Hesla, director of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation.

South Dakota loses its habitat — with open prairie being the most critical to species protection — by development of homes, conversion of native lands into agricultural uses and dividing of land for wind towers or other industries, said Eileen Dowd Stukel, wildlife diversity coordinator with the South Dakota GF&P.

Hesla pointed out that if a species becomes threatened, its habitat will be subject to vast federal and state protections that may cost businesses money or require them to shut down.

“This act would provide an avenue to help keep those animals off those lists,” he said.

Now, states receive federal money for wildlife protection from the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Act, which taps excise taxes on arms and ammunition, paired with state matches from hunting license fees, to provide money to states. That funding source, known as the State and Tribal Wildlife Grant program within the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, is variable and mostly in decline, now dividing up about $61 million among states, with 5 percent set aside for tribal governments. The state of South Dakota received about $482,000 in 2016 from that program.

“That’s year to year and at the discretion of Congress, so we can’t really think or plan long term,” said Dowd Stukel.

The House bill introduced in December would divert $650 million of royalties from mineral extraction on federal lands and $650 million of royalties from oil and gas production in the Outer Continental Shelf to states. Those funds now go to the federal treasury.

Once a required 25 percent local match is added, the amount of new money in South Dakota would be at least $21.5 million a year.

In the Great Plains, annual pre-match disbursements would include $15 million for North Dakota, $17 million for Iowa, $18 million for Nebraska, $20 million for Wyoming, $27 million for Minnesota and $30 million for Montana.

The act would not include funding for tribal governments. Hepler said there is a move afoot to maintain funding of the State and Tribal Wildlife Grant program and provide all that roughly $60 million a year to tribes as a way to increase spending on habitat protection on reservations.

Hepler envisions a grant program with ideas coming from municipalities, universities, agricultural entities or conservation groups.

Hesla suggested the act could fund projects that benefit both urban residents and threatened species. To foster the growth of threatened insects like the Dakota skipper or powesheik skipperling butterflies, a city could get money to build a wildflower garden in a park, Hesla said.

A big beneficiary of any habitat protection projects would be the state’s coveted pheasant hunting industry, according to Matt Morlock, acting director of the South Dakota branch of Pheasants Forever.

“More funds out there means good things for all wildlife in South Dakota,” Morlock said. “What we do for other wildlife species, ducks, deer or non-game species, it’s going to benefit pheasants.”

Morlock said the entire state economy would benefit. In 2016, outdoor recreation generated $1.3 billion in spending in South Dakota, with a large percentage from the pheasant hunt.

“In South Dakota, we’re never short on ideas and programs we want to do, but we’re always short on money, so this would help us with that,” Morlock said.