Yellowstone chief says Trump administration forcing him out: ‘I feel this is a punitive action’
Yellowstone National Park’s superintendent said Thursday that he’s being forced out in an apparent “punitive action” following disagreements with the Trump administration over how many bison the park can sustain, a longstanding source of conflict between park officials and ranchers in neighboring Montana.
Superintendent Dan Wenk announced last week that he intended to retire March 30, 2019, after being offered a transfer he didn’t want. He said he was informed this week by National Park Service Acting Director Paul “Dan” Smith that a new superintendent will be in place in August and that Wenk will be gone by then.
“I feel this is a punitive action, but I don’t know for sure. They never gave me a reason why,” Wenk said. The only dispute he’s had with U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who oversees the park service, was whether the park has too many bison, Wenk said.
Ranchers in neighboring Montana have long sought reductions in Yellowstone’s bison numbers because of worries that they could spread the disease brucellosis to cattle and compete with livestock for grazing space outside the park. Brucellosis causes animals to prematurely abort their young and can be transmitted through birthing material. It also can infect people.
Park biologists contend the population of more than 4,000 bison is sustainable. But Zinke and his staff have said the number is too high, Wenk said, and raised concerns that Yellowstone’s scenic Lamar Valley is being damaged by overgrazing.
Zinke, a former Montana congressman, has paid close attention to projects back home, including proposing a new national monument near Glacier National Park even as he pushed reductions to monuments elsewhere in the U.S. That’s stirred speculation he has future political ambitions in the state.
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift declined to comment directly on Wenk’s assertions or the issue of bison management. She referred The Associated Press to a previously issued statement saying President Donald Trump had ordered a reorganization of the federal government and that Zinke “has been absolutely out front on that issue.”
Wenk said he had multiple conversations with Zinke and his staff about bison, most recently this week.
“We’re not a livestock operation. We’re managing a national park with natural systems,” he said. “We do not believe the bison population level is too high or that any scientific studies would substantiate that.”
The livestock industry wants Yellowstone’s bison herds reduced to 3,000 animals, a population target specified in a 2000 agreement between Montana and the federal government. Montana Stockgrowers Association interim vice president Jay Bodner said Zinke “understands the issues around bison, not only in the park but how that impacts the livestock issue.”