Dan Wenk

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk says he’s being forced out as a “punitive action” following disagreements with the Trump administration over how many bison the park can sustain.

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — Weeks after a proposal to move him to Washington, D.C. went public, the top official at Yellowstone National Park announced Friday that he plans to retire next year.

Dan Wenk, who has been the park’s superintendent since 2011, hopes to leave the agency at the end of March 2019, which would give him the better part of a year to cap off a career that spans four decades with the National Park Service and includes time spent at the agency’s highest levels.

The announcement comes much sooner than Wenk thought it would, expedited by news of a proposed shakeup that would have reassigned him to a job in Washington. The news sparked speculation about how long he’d remain in his post.

He said in an interview Friday that he’d been planning on retiring in early 2019 for at least a year; he’d told his direct supervisor that’s what he wanted to do in 2017. After suspicion that he’d be gone sooner arose and intensified, he decided to announce his intentions this week.

“I felt like I needed to make an announcement to bring some clarity and certainty to what my intentions were,” Wenk said.

There’s no guarantee at this point that his wish will be honored. Wenk is part of a group of high-level officials known as the Senior Executive Service that can be reassigned to new jobs by the Interior Department’s Executive Resources Board. His proposed reassignment was alongside six others, at least one of which will happen this summer.

Wenk said the board could conceivably reassign him before his retirement date, forcing him to either leave or retire sooner. He said such an action wouldn’t make sense to him.

“It would seem foolish to move me from Yellowstone National Park to Washington, D.C. and have me retire three months later,” he said.

There are a number of issues he said he wants to continue working on in the remainder of his tenure, including bison quarantine, concessions contract negotiations and ensuring a smooth transition for the next superintendent. But his career has already earned high marks from conservation groups and other public officials.

Theresa Pierno, the president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in an emailed statement that Wenk “has been a strong leader” in a time when the Park Service is still without a permanent director, and that his knowledge and passion are assets to the agency.

“Whether you agree with Dan or not, you know where he stands, and he stands for the parks,” Pierno said. “To lose Dan Wenk would be a great loss to the National Park System.”

Steve Iobst, a longtime friend and former deputy superintendent of Yellowstone, said Wenk had “an incredible career” and that the timing of his retirement is probably right for him.

“Regardless of current circumstances, I know what it’s like to know when it feels right,” Iobst said. “And I suspect this probably feels right for him.”

Wenk, who is 66, first started with the agency in 1975. His first stint in Yellowstone came a few years later, when he served as the park’s landscape architect.

He left Yellowstone in 1985 for Mount Rushmore National Memorial, where he became superintendent and stayed for 16 years. He said one of his proudest achievements in his career came there, when he worked with a local non-government organization to raise money for a suite of renovations.

After leaving Rushmore, he climbed the ranks within the agency, eventually becoming the deputy director of operations in 2007. In that job, he helped negotiate the purchase of land for the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania.

He took Yellowstone’s top job in 2011, becoming the head of what many consider the crown jewel of the National Park Service. He said he’s proud of the work the park has done on bison conservation in the past seven years, including gaining more tolerance for the furry mammal outside of the park’s borders.

Perhaps his favorite achievement in the realm of bison conservation remains somewhat unfinished. The park is working with the Fort Peck Tribes and state and federal livestock officials to finalize agreements on a quarantine program, which is meant to send disease-free bison to enhance or establish other conservation herds.

Wenk said they expect bison will be on the road to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation either late this year or early next year.

“I think we’re going to get there in the time I have left,” he said.

He has no immediate plans for retirement but expects he’ll remain involved in any number of environmental issues, in part because of his time at the helm of Yellowstone.

“Yellowstone affects you,” he said. “When you’ve had an opportunity to devote part of your life to its care, you can’t come away from that without being changed in some ways.”

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.