June 8, 2018 / 12:51 AM / 16 days ago

Yellowstone chief says he is ousted after dispute with Trump administration

PINEDALE, Wyo. (Reuters) - The superintendent of Yellowstone National Park said on Thursday he was being forced from his post after disagreeing with the Trump administration over management of the park’s famed bison herd.

FILE PHOTO - A herd of bison graze in Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S. on June 20, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

Dan Wenk, who has led one of the nation’s most popular national parks since 2011, said in an interview broadcast by public radio that he and his boss, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, had been at odds over bison but that he believed they had settled their differences.

“I thought we were on track and I thought that he was very supportive of what we were doing and how we were doing it and that we were going to get it done,” Wenk told the Mountain West News Bureau, without specifying the nature of their disagreement.

Conflicts have raged for years over how many bison the park can sustain and methods used to keep the population contained.

The park’s practice of capturing and shipping to slaughter a certain number of bison that wander from Yellowstone in winter in search of food in Montana, Zinke’s home state, is driven in part by ranchers there who are concerned about competition for rangelands and about the spread of brucellosis, a disease carried by some bison that can cause cows to miscarry.

During Wenk’s tenure, the park has argued Yellowstone can withstand many more bison than the target of 3,000 that is supported by the Montana Department of Livestock and the ranchers it represents.

Montana cattlemen also have raised alarms about a program instituted under Wenk’s leadership that seeks to distribute brucellosis-free bison from Yellowstone to Native American tribes in Montana and elsewhere.

Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift did not respond to a request from Reuters about any disagreements over bison management.

FILE PHOTO - A car is stopped by a herd of bison crossing the highway in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S. on June 8, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

But she said in an email that Zinke had been “out front” in carrying out orders by President Donald Trump to reorganize the federal government for the future.

She said personnel moves for those who, like Wenk, are in the senior executive service “are conducted to better serve the taxpayer and the Department’s operations.”

Wenk said earlier this month that he planned to retire in 2019, without alluding to any policy disputes with superiors.

In Thursday’s interview, however, he said he had been told by the acting chief of the National Park Service, a branch of the Interior Department, that he needed either to accept reassignment to a new post in Washington, D.C., or retire early in August.

“I’m feeling like I devoted 43 years of my life, I think I have a record of achievement with the National Park Service that at the end of the day doesn’t matter and that I’m no longer wanted at Yellowstone National Park,” Wenk told Mountain West, which is aired in Wyoming and other Western states.

“Even though I told them I was going to retire, that seemed not to make a difference, so extremely disappointed is probably a mild way to explain it,” he said.

Wenk could not immediately be reached by Reuters.

Yellowstone, which occupies the northwestern corner of Wyoming and parts of Idaho and Montana, is home to the nation’s last large herd of wild, purebred bison. Millions flock to the park annually to view the bison and other wildlife and natural wonders.

Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Cooney and Bill Tarrant

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