Montana Public Radio

Yellowstone Park Chief Blames Bison Politics For His Departure

Aug 9, 2018

Yellowstone National Park’s departing superintendent says he can’t quite shake the feeling that he is being punished for disagreeing with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about bison management. He held a press conference about his departure Thursday.

In June, Superintendent Dan Wenk told Yellowstone Public Radio he felt abused by the Interior Department.

He walked that sentiment back at the press conference.

"I regret the use of the word ‘abused’," Wenk says. "I’m just going to tell you that."

Wenk says Interior insists he was not forced out of his job. But, he says orders to transfer him to Washington D.C., instead of allowing him to retire as Yellowstone’s superintendent next year, as he’d originally planned, still don’t sit well.

"I probably would tell you it still feels a little punitive," Wenk says. "Having it feel punitive and it being punitive are two different things. It certainly felt punitive."

Wenk will officially retire from Yellowstone September 29.

He covered several topics during the wide-ranging, nearly two hour news conference.

Wenk says bison management is Yellowstone’s most complex issue. He says it was also the only issue that caused friction between himself and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

"We think the habitat is sufficient to withstand the numbers in the 4,200 to 4,500 range," Wenk says. "The Secretary, understandably, his position would start at, ‘You have a target population in the Interagency Bison Management Plan that talks about 3,000 to 3,500 animals."

Wenk hopes to complete the final agreement necessary to launch a new bison quarantine program before he leaves. That would allow the transfer of disease-free bison to the Fort Peck Reservation, with the ultimate goal being creation of new bison herds around the nation.

Wenk says Yellowstone is at a crossroads when it comes to visitation, which has increased by almost 40 percent since 2008.

He doesn’t believe that’s sustainable and says, "We’re trying to understand the impact of that visitor use in Yellowstone on resource protection. We the National Park Service, certainly my successor, I think are going to have to grapple with that at a much higher level in terms of managing visitation."

Wenk’s replacement will be Cameron “Cam” Sholly, currently the National Park Service’s Midwest Regional Director.