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Yellowstone Head Softens Tone On Forced Early Departure

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk on the boardwalks of Mammoth Hot Springs.
Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk on the boardwalks of Mammoth Hot Springs.

The head of Yellowstone National Park is leaving his post next month after the Trump administration forced him to either take a transfer to D.C. or retire early.

When our Mountain West News Bureau first broke that news in June, Superintendent Dan Wenk said he felt “abused” by the U.S. Interior Department.

But during a press conference Thursday, he mellowed his tone.

“I regret the use of the term ‘abused,’” he said. “Probably of anything I ever said in any of these interviews, I regretted using the word ‘abused.’ However, I would probably tell you it still feels a little punitive.”

Wenk still doesn’t have a good grasp on why he was forced out, though.

Colleagues say he butted heads with ranching interests over bison and with local business owners over how to manage the record-breaking number of visitors entering the park each summer. The Interior Department said they wanted him to oversee national parks in Washington D.C. 

Wenk is set to retire from Yellowstone late next month. He originally planned to retire in March of next year.

The current superintendent said one of his biggest regrets in leaving early is not seeing wild Yellowstone bison return to tribal lands on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana.

“Selfishly, I wanted to be standing at Fort Peck with chairman [Mark] Azure and watching bison get off the trucks when they were transferred to Fort Peck because I think it’s a major step in conservation for bison,” he said.

While the long-proposed transfer won’t happen with Wenk at the helm, he remains optimistic the bison will return to tribal lands after he leaves.

“I think it’s going to happen,” he said. “I think it’s going to happen in the short term. I think it’s something that’s supported all the way up to the Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of Agriculture, the governor, the chairman of the Fort Peck tribes.”

The plan has faced heavy criticism from ranching interests in Montana. They are worried the animals could spread a disease called brucellosis to their cattle.

There’s never been a documented case of that happening in the wild, in part because Yellowstone bison are strictly contained and managed.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. 

Copyright 2020 Yellowstone Public Radio. To see more, visit Yellowstone Public Radio.