Former Yellowstone chief slams Secretary Zinke’s ousting of respected Yellowstone superintendent
Move appears to be political favor for anti-bison Montana lobbyists at the expense of respected park director
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has made it his mission to “shake up” the Interior Department, initiating a far-reaching reorganization, forcing reassignments of senior staff, stifling agency scientists, and even remarking that career employees are “disloyal to the flag.” The recent ouster of the highly-regarded Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk reinforces how Secretary Zinke is letting his political agenda get in the way of our national parks and public lands.
Wenk, a respected career Park Service official with more than 40 years of experience, oversaw renovations of the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore, restored credibility to the construction arm of the Park Service, and served as Acting Deputy Director of the agency. Throughout his tenure, he rose through the ranks as part of the Senior Executive Service (SES), a program to train and place talented executives within the government. In 2011, Wenk was appointed superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, considered one of the most prestigious positions within the Park Service, drawing widespread praise.
Recently Wenk had been working to manage herds of Yellowstone bison, collaborating with local stakeholders to allow migration outside of the park and relocate some populations to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, at the request of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes. The efforts were not popular with a small group of Montana ranchers, who feared bison would spread brucellosis, a devastating disease, to their cattle. Although Wenk’s team quarantined bison populations to ensure they were disease-free and numerous studies pin brucellosis transmission primarily on elk, not bison, some of Secretary Zinke’s political friends continued to rail against the Yellowstone superintendent’s efforts.
A campaign to keep free roaming bison out of Montana has been spearheaded by the United Property Owners of Montana, an astroturf group founded and staffed by a Republican lobbying firm, The Montana Group. Of The Montana Group’s three employees, two have given generously to Secretary Zinke’s congressional campaigns and the third served as Zinke’s communications director in his initial run for Congress. The lobbying firm touts its ability to create organizations and generate grassroots advocacy, and its employees have written numerous op-eds against free roaming bison.
Earlier this month, soon after Wenk announced his intent to retire in 2019, he received written notice that he was being forcibly reassigned to Washington, D.C.. Despite his storied career and senior position, the superintendent learned of the ultimatum by press release.
Wenk, now forced to choose between a demotion to Washington D.C. or retiring 8 months early, suspects that his stance on bison is behind his reassignment. “After 42 ½ years, I felt like it was a punitive action to have me leave Yellowstone National Park, especially when they have not told me why they want me to go to the National Region,” Wenk told E&E News. “I expected a conversation,” he told Outside Magazine. “I expressed many times, ‘Can we just sit down and talk?’ The conversation I requested never happened.”
The news of Wenk’s firing did not sit well with Michael Finley, a respected former National Park Service official who served as superintendent of the “big three” parks: Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Everglades. “The Trump Administration says it will provide money for infrastructure, to repair roads and buildings, but the real infrastructure that holds our national parks together isn’t bricks and mortar, it begins with good people,” Finley told Mountain Journal. “That infrastructure is crumbling. It’s evident in what’s happening to Dan Wenk.”
Secretary Zinke’s trend of reassigning respected career staff spurred an investigation by the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General, which found no basis for the Secretary’s actions and a lack of proper documentation. “The philosophy, which appears to be Ryan Zinke’s, that if you can direct and manage a candy factory it means you can also command an aircraft carrier is bankrupt on its face,” Finley said. “Wenk has built his experience and credibility the hard way through decades of successful assignments at all levels to reach the top.”
And that’s part of what makes Wenk’s reassignment even more insulting. In Park Service tradition, superintendents who are appointed to Yellowstone National Park generally remain there until they retire, having earned their place of leadership.
While Finley has no qualms about Cameron “Cam” Sholly, the man who’s been tapped to replace Wenk, the same can’t be said of Daniel Smith, the acting director of the Park Service who helped orchestrate Wenk’s reassignment and who has battled charges of inappropriate workplace behavior. “Dan Smith was selected to do Zinke’s bidding,” Finley said. “A Park Service director should not be a handmaiden to the Secretary.”
“I have known Dan Smith for a long time. I have no personal ill will toward him, but he is one of the least qualified persons I can think of professionally to be acting or permanent director of the National Park Service,” Finley said. “Ironically, if anyone were to be named director of the Park Service, from the cadre of active possibilities, it should be Dan Wenk. He’s had a spectacular career. He is honest and one of the most conscientious I have known…. Dan Smith’s [career] doesn’t compare to Dan Wenk’s.”
The continued reassignments and harsh treatment of career officials has sparked concern around the agency. One Interior veteran, who spoke to Mountain Journal on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, is concerned that Secretary Zinke’s reorganization push is an attempt to systematically replace career conservationists with staff who are friendlier to the Trump administration’s campaign for “energy dominance.”
“A Park Service director should not be a handmaiden to the Secretary.” — Michael Finley, former superintendent of Yellowstone, Yosemite and Everglades National Parks
“My fear is that this secretary and the administration will do anything possible to undermine the stewardship philosophy of the rank and file employees,” said Finley. “Not only will they destroy the quality of the personnel and its morale, but by doing so remove dedicated protectors of the resources and allow erosion to effect the assets inside them and the quality of the park experience.”