Wenk says goodbye

Outgoing Yellowstone leader sees rising summer visits as park’s next big challenge

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Coming to the end of his career in the National Park Service, Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said the reality of retirement is increasingly difficult.

“It gets harder to face every day,” he said last week, searching for the appropriate words.

As the questions from media members persisted at a Thursday teleconference, Wenk attempted to express his feelings.

“It’s not raw anymore. I’ve accepted that I will be departing Yellowstone in September,” he said. “However, I would tell you it still feels a little punitive.”

Wenk alerted his bosses late last year of his intentions to retire in the first quarter of 2019, wanting to finish important business before signing out. But earlier this year, Department of Interior officials ordered him to transfer to a different post at Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C. Wenk instead chose to retire next month.

Wenk denied he was being forced out over a disagreement with DOI secretary Ryan Zinke. He singled out Daniel Smith, currently the service’s top official, for not allowing him to finish out his career at the park.

“I had told [Smith] I planned to retire. And so the fact the [transfer] action continued to go forward even though I had announced my retirement made it feel punitive,” Wenk said. “But having it feel punitive and being punitive are two different things. But it certainly felt punitive. I’m not saying it was.”

Before retiring to the Black Hills of South Dakota, Wenk hopes to be able to finish business, including negotiations on bison herd management and assisting Cameron “Cam” Sholly’s transition into the top job at the park.

With about six weeks before his 43-year service career ends, Wenk hopes he hasn’t become a lame-duck leader.

“I have to believe I’m being heard or they wouldn’t keep asking” for opinions, he said. “Over the seven years I’ve been here as superintendent, there have been ebbs and flows in communication with the secretary’s office and it’s no different right now.”

Barring an earthquake at the geothermally charged national park — the nation’s first — Wenk feels the greatest challenge for his replacement will be managing visitors.

More than 980,000 people from around the world visited the park in July alone, Wenk said. Calling the ecosystem fragile, Wenk is unsure what the future holds for ensuring the number of visitors doesn’t interfere with protecting the unique habitat.

“I don’t know what will work best,” he said. “We’re going to have to manage visitation in the future. Whether it’s a limitation on how many people can come on a daily basis … or per hour … we don’t know what the answer is yet. Maybe shuttle systems in certain parts of the park will help alleviate some of the problems. If the winter use debate taught me anything is that we can’t propose a solution until we understand both the intended and unintended consequences of any solution we propose.”

The fight over winter use — and specifically over how many snowmobiles are allowed in Yellowstone each winter — dragged on for more than a decade until Wenk and his leadership team hit upon a new approach in 2013. Rather than continuing to set limits on a specific number of snowmobiles or snowcoaches to let into the park, Wenk’s team focused on the number of disruptions to Yellowstone’s peace and quiet — and that “transportation event” approach led to a plan that generally satisfied all sides.

As successful as that effort was, it dealt with less than 3 percent of the park’s annual visits. Navigating the use in the busier summer months will be much trickier, but the retiring Wenk won’t have to face the issue.

Some have speculated he may return to work as a lobbyist or board member of a conservation or foundation dealing with national parks.

“I certainly intend to be engaged in environmental or conservation issues and I hope to be engaged some way around national parks,” Wenk said.

Wenk made a name for himself recently by being the only vote against a tristate memorandum of agreement in the delisting of grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem. And it was apparent he isn’t shy about stating his opinion about upcoming hunts on the doorstep of the park.

“The National Park Service supports the delisting of grizzly bears. That doesn’t mean we don’t have concerns,” he said.

The method of counting the population is his main concern. While serving as a voting member on the Yellowstone Grizzly Coordinating Committee, Wenk was led to believe grizzlies would be counted using the Chao 2 method into the foreseeable future. Within months of delisting, scientists began challenging the method, insisting the counts were intentionally low and using an integrated population model would come up with a more realistic population estimate. Wenk has protested the move, along with conservation organizations.

If more bears are accounted for, the reasoning goes, more bears will be available for discretionary mortality — hunting. Wenk has complained the foreseeable future promise leading to delisting seemed to only last long enough to see the species taken off the Endangered Species Act list.

Wenk is also concerned about staffing levels at the park. About 300 full-time and 500 seasonal workers make up the staff at the park. The staffing levels have been the same since he has been the superintendent despite a 40-percent rise in the number of visitors.

When asked what he will miss the most, Wenk said he enjoyed knowing he made a difference.

“This is Yellowstone. Everything you do here matters. I actually like that everybody is watching,” he said, adding, “I liked that responsibility.”

Wenk said he hoped all those paying attention could tell he made his decisions in a thoughtful way.

“There’s never a dull moment in Yellowstone National Park and I’m going to miss it,” he said as he closed out the two-hour teleconference.

He also advised the press on questions about the future leadership of the park.

“If you have questions about the next superintendent, don’t call me,” Wenk said.

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