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Yellowstone superintendent reassigned after announcing plans to retire

A new leader of the largest national park in the country was named on Wednesday, but the outgoing superintendent says...

Posted: Jun 14, 2018 6:59 PM
Updated: Jun 14, 2018 6:59 PM

A new leader of the largest national park in the country was named on Wednesday, but the outgoing superintendent says he is being forced out just nine months ahead of his publicly announced retirement, the latest casualty of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's controversial reassignments of senior executives.

Dan Wenk, who has spent 42 years at the National Park Service and the last seven as the head of Yellowstone National Park, said he was notified in writing on June 4 that he was being reassigned to Washington, DC, for the last nine months of his career with little explanation, despite his repeated requests for details of his new job. The notification came just three days after he announced his plan to retire in March 2019.

"Even as far back as the summer of 2016 I said my intention is to retire from Yellowstone National Park, so I felt disrespected," Wenk told CNN. "I felt I had a 42-year career of achievement, and ... at that point in my career, them knowing I planned to retire, not being able to sit down and discuss a transition, I think it's fair to say I felt disrespected."

He told the Montana Journal -- later confirming to CNN -- that "it's a hell of a way to be treated at the end of four decades spent trying to do my best for the park service and places like Yellowstone but that's how these guys are," adding that "throughout my career, I've not encountered anything like this, ever."

Wenk has 60 days to formally respond, but if he declines the new position, he could face removal.

The Interior Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Zinke announced the new superintendent of Yellowstone as Cameron Sholly, saying in a news release, "As a veteran of the National Park Service, Cam has a track record of working with local communities and Tribes on important wildlife and conservation work and he's overseen some of the park service's most high-profile park infrastructure projects in recent years. Managing our National Parks is a responsibility and a privilege, and I'm confident Cam Sholly will do a fantastic job at Yellowstone."

Wenk's reassignment comes after 33 other senior executives across the Interior Department were abruptly moved just months after Zinke took office. It was so controversial that the inspector general conducted an investigation and found that Interior should do better at communicating with affected senior staffers before sending out notifications. Ultimately, the IG office said it could not determine if the department had complied with the law when reassigning executives last year because of a failure to maintain adequate records.

"Do I know that they have the ability to move me? Absolutely. They have the ability to do this, and they've done it within the rules. My question is, why would they do this now? I can't put the pieces together," Wenk said. "I asked for a conversation with (Acting Director of the National Park Service) Dan Smith or anyone else at the department ... that never happened. All they would say is that 'your skills are needed at national capital region.' It seemed punitive to me. I was going to retire, they knew I was going to retire. How is that for the efficiency of the government?"

Wenk said he was told of the impending reassignment, and made it clear in his initial discussions that he did not believe moving him just eight months before retirement would be good for the National Park Service, given the cost of relocation and the abrupt change in leadership twice within one year.

"The people of the park service deserve better than for me to take another job (and then retire)," he said.

In his tenure, Wenk has moved several times, previously holding the position of deputy director of operations for the park service from from 2007 to 2011, and the position of acting director of the National Park Service. He was called "the mailman" by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for always being able to deliver -- even figuring out how to reopen the Statue of Liberty following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Wenk said he continued to enjoy a good relationship with Zinke's Interior Department, although disagreeing about the administration's approach on the habitat and number of Bison in Yellowstone. Wenk said they had a discussion about the issue and he felt they were making progress.

"It's a disagreement that is long standing between Yellowstone and the state of Montana," Wenk said. "I thought we were working through that. We were actually looking at science, and putting together information. Certainly (Zinke) has a different perspective than the last administration."

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