The Trump administration issued a stern reply to Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Daniel Wenk’s offer to retire next year to avoid a reassignment to Washington: Leave your post by August or retire now.
As first reported by The Washington Post, Wenk submitted a letter to National Park Service brass announcing his retirement, offering to work until March at his office in Wyoming rather than move to the Park Service’s National Capital Region. After Monday’s reply, Wenk spoke out Thursday, saying he felt abused, according to the Mountain West News Bureau, which broke the story of the administration’s response.
“I certainly feel like this is punitive,” Wenk said Thursday in an interview with the Post after the news broke. “To not even have a phone call, the courtesy of having someone sit with me and say, ‘This is why we feel it’s important to have you [in Washington]; these are the things we need to you to do.’ “
Park Service Director P. Daniel Smith issued the administration ultimatum in a formal letter. In a conversation with his direct supervisors about his offer to retire next year, Wenk said, “They told me that was not going to happen.” He recalled asking what would be a good time frame for him to retire from Yellowstone and being told it should be within two months. Wenk recalled his next question: “What if i’m still here?” And the reply: “If you’re still there you won’t be superintendent.”
Wenk’s looming reassignment is one of several ordered by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to fulfill President Trump’s effort to reorganize the federal government.
Cameron Sholly, the Park Service director for the Midwest, is said to be in consideration for Wenk’s Yellowstone job, according to a worker at the Park Service who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job.
At least eight other senior executives are being reassigned. Critics say many of the reassignments of Senior Executive Service employees appear to be motivated by politics, sweeping aside those who disagree with the administration on issues such as climate change, wildlife management and wilderness preservation.
Wenk, a 43-year Park Service veteran, wanted time to complete several major projects, including the movement of bison in Yellowstone to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, 400 miles away. Moving the animals is a sensitive issue for ranchers who believe they carry a disease called brucellosis that could spread to cattle. Although there’s no documented case of the illness being spread by bison, the fear persists among ranchers and farmers whom Zinke often champions in speeches.
Wenk’s supporters said his concern for the bison put him at odds with Zinke, but Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift disputed that in an email, saying: “That is easily proven wrong with a simple Google search. The secretary has been fighting for Fort Peck to have their bison for years.”
One of Wenk’s former deputies at Yellowstone, Steve Iobst, said the opposite was true. The reassignment seemed sudden, Iobst told the Mountain West News Bureau, and he speculated that politics and crossing Zinke over issues involving wildlife and habitat factored into Wenk’s removal.
“I’m not sure if it rubs the current administration the wrong way, but certainly the transport of bison to reservations in Montana is not very well thought of by the ranching interests in the state of Montana,” Iobst said.
“We’re very disappointed about the news of Dan Wenk being forced out,” said Caroline Byrd, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “We are concerned and dismayed about how this administration is treating Dan. … Yellowstone deserves the courageous leadership that Wenk embodies, and we’ll be watching developments closely.”
Wenk entered the Park Service as a landscape architect in the late 1970s and entered the high-paying Senior Executive Service in the early 1990s. As a deputy to former Park Service director Jonathan B. Jarvis, he oversaw the reopening of the Statue of Liberty’s crown in 2009 and mediated a sharp dispute over snowmobile use in Yellowstone after becoming superintendent in 2012.
Accepting a reassignment to Washington from Yellowstone, one of the top jobs in the Park Service, is “not out of the question,” Wenk said. “It’s not likely I would take the job, but if they called me and said, ‘These are the things we would like you to work on; these are the things that are important,’ I would consider it.
“I’ve already announced my retirement. I think it’s fair to say I will retire,” he said. “It’s a matter of a smooth transition and respect. I feel like they’re giving no respect for the career I’ve had.”