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The Past 30 Years in Yellowstone, Part 2: Dan Wenk
For every complex problem, there's an easy solution that's
wrong. We need a different solution. We don't have the same solution for
each of the three states. We can’t have the same solution with all of the
tribes either. Their needs are different, and their expectations are
I sat down every day and said to myself, “Don't screw this up.”
Your mistakes can have long lasting effects in Yellowstone National Park. You
always have to err on the side of the resource. You can fix visitor issues or
concession issues, but it’s really hard to fix natural resources
issues. Management of grizzly bears, wolves, native fish. Those are
problems that we'll be working on for the rest of the park history.
November 6, 2023
The Past 30 Years in Yellowstone, Part 2: Dan Wenk
In Part 2 of our interview series with the past four superintendents of America's first national park, Dan Wenk recalls the joy and challenges in running Yellowstone, and his controversial departure.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Yellowstone National Park has undergone a litany of changes over its lifespan since 1872 when it was named the first national park in the U.S. It’s also witnessed incredible triumphs in the face of increasing visitation, devastating flooding, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the challenges associated with managing wildlife numbers, staffing and relationships with the three states in which it resides: Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
At Mountain Journal, we wanted to examine how far Yellowstone has come in the last 30 years, what changes it’s experienced, and what the future may hold. What better place to start than with the four park superintendents that have occupied that position over the last three decades. In Part 2 of our series, Dan Wenk discusses his seven-year tenure leading the park.
by Johnathan Hettinger
When Dan Wenk first worked in Yellowstone National Park in 1979, it was a much different place than the landscape we know today. There were fewer bison and grizzlies. Wolves had not yet been reintroduced in the park. There were about half the number of visitors as there are these days.
By the time Wenk returned as Yellowstone’s superintendent in 2011, the park had made a lot of progress toward putting the ecosystem back together. But with thathighly publicized and controversial exit from the park, Wenk retired in 2018. He now lives in South Dakota but has kept the pulse of Yellowstone by serving as chairman of the board for the nonprofit Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
In a recent conversation, Wenk reflected on the progress that’s been made since the early ‘80s and how the park will have to navigate a changing climate, difficult conversations with the state of Montana, and increasing visitation among other challenges.
Wenk had one main guiding light on how to be superintendent of the crown jewel of the national park system: “You have to err on the side of the resource.” Because of the historical loss of grizzlies, wolves, bison and native fish, park managers will have their hands full making up for those actions forever.
The conversation below has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Mountain Journal: Do you make it back to Yellowstone often?
Dan Wenk: I'll be there Friday, [October 20]. I was in the park for a brief visit at the first of the summer – [at the] end of May or first of June. I was actually in Gardiner about three weeks ago, but I didn’t go into the park. I didn’t have time to make it up there.
MoJo: What changes do you notice, if any?
D.W.: The biggest changes were brought on by the floods last year. The entrance from the north, that’s the most noticeable change that people would see. A lot of the other things are incremental changes, just things that have been in consideration for a long time or were already underway. Dunraven Pass was finished. The parking lot is done by the Tower store. There were some adjustments out in Lamar Valley after the flood. They’re continuing to do some of the major work. For someone who spent a total of 14 years of my life there, you see those kinds of things.
In terms of the natural resources, that just seems to be a continual, positive evolution [and] includes lake trout, bison, wolves, grizzly bears. When it comes to the major animals in the ecosystem that people care about, like grizzly bears, wolves and mountain lions, it surprises me how difficult that conversation with the state of Montana is, but it’s always been difficult.
MoJo: Lately, there has been a lot of publicized conflict with the state of Montana. There was the large wolf hunt in 2021-2022. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte recently criticized the Bison Management Plan. Do you feel like that relationship has gotten worse?
D.W.: I don’t think it's gotten any more difficult; I think it's changed. When I was there from 1979 to 1984, there was one winter when eight bison left the park. It was an all-hands-on-deck morning. They were hazed back.
When I got back to Yellowstone in 2011, I’ll never forget: It was my first or second week, and I visited Gov. [Brian] Schweitzer’s office in Helena. We were talking about bison. He wanted to talk about hunting bison in the park. There was a whole range of things that to him were the appropriate and right solutions to the problem, but those solutions were never going to happen. They were against law, policy and regulation. We had a very respectful but very contentious relationship the whole time he was governor.
"I sat down every day and said to myself, “Don't screw this up.” Your mistakes can have long lasting effects in Yellowstone National Park. You always have to err on the side of the resource." – Dan Wenk, Superintendent, Yellowstone National Park (2011-2018)
Since the ‘80s, we have made great progress. The fact that there’s bison on the landscape—[their numbers are] not at all where they should be—but there has been such incremental and steady progress that I don’t think people remember or see how it was during those years. The fact we can move bison to Fort Peck; that we’re slaughtering a lot less bison [through the slaughter program]; that we have found other avenues for bison to be dealt with: quarantine programs, working with tribes on hunting outside the park. It’s not where it needs to be, but it’s hard-fought progress and it’s progress being made.
When I first got to Yellowstone, the wolves were still listed [under the Endangered Species Act]. With the delisting of wolves, there are different challenges than when they were listed. A couple years ago, the state [of Montana] from my perspective made some difficult decisions for the Park Service when they allowed the hunting of so many wolves. They've ratcheted it back since then. They’re going through trial and error.
Wenk devoted the final months of his 43-year career with the National Park Service to drawing up a plan to manage Yellowstone's bison herds. NPS is currently reviewing public comment on the current bison management plan. Here, bison graze along Rose Creek in the Lamar Valley. Photo by Neal Herbert/NPS
Grizzly bears, when they were trying to delist them in 2016, mine was the only voice that said I didn't agree that we should approve the conservation plan. We thought the states had it wrong. We did not sign on to approving the conservation plan at the park level because they wanted to remove such a significant number of bears. We knew there were more accurate methods to count the number of bears, and they wanted to control the number of bears using an old system that undercounted bears, resulting in more dead bears. We thought we were managing them effectively at the current level. We didn't sign off on the conservation plan and that caused a lot of controversy at the time.
Now, Yellowstone is putting out a Bison Management Plan. We could never get the state [of Montana] to work with us. We couldn't agree to a joint plan with the state and the park.
Montana is making a Grizzly Bear Management Plan. The last time I read it was probably last spring. I don’t know where it's at right now. They still wanted to take bears down to an unnecessarily low number. That hasn't changed. We can manage them successfully at the level they're at now.
On wolves, elk populations are really high throughout the state but healthier near the park. Because people can't have the level of success and get the trophies they used to get, people call it a failure, but I'd say it's a great success.
We have relationships with all the states but because Montana is the primary migration route for animals outside the park, Montana is the state that we have the most interesting conversations with. We have more boundary with the state of Wyoming, but it's not where the animals want to go.
"There are so many relationships. It’s not only the park and Native American tribes, it’s Native American tribes and other Native American tribes. It’s Native American Tribes and the state ... For every complex problem, there's an easy solution that's wrong. We need a different solution." – Dan Wenk
MoJo: In recent years, there has been record visitation in Yellowstone. What are the impacts of that? How are you thinking about that?
D.W.: When I was in Yellowstone in the early ‘80s, John Townsley was the superintendent, and then it was Bob Barbee.
Visitation was around 2.5 million. It’s pretty much doubled since
1982. How visitation is perceived is interesting. It’s perceived by the
employees who work there as a much bigger problem than by visitors to
Yellowstone National Park.
When people who are visiting experience traffic jams, they’re generally caused by some incredible experience: a grizzly bear that’s taken down an elk or deer; seeing wolves hunt an elk; or seeing a bison for the first time. You can pick 100 different reasons: the rut in the fall. People who are visitors are rewarded by [the traffic jams]. When there are access problems to major features—Old Faithful, the Midway Geyser Basin, the Norris Geyser Basin—once you get in and see it, tourists forget about the pain they endured.
We initiated studies on visitor use. [Current Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly] is the recipient of all that data. I’ve seen some of it, but I would not tell you I’m an expert on it. The question is, when do you take action? I don’t know if you limit visitation or if you time visitation, but you want to do it before there’s going to be resource damage or damage to the visitor experience. You’ll want to use all the data you’ve collected to see when you’re going to have a problem and then figure out what we’re going to do.
It’s a very difficult conversation. Especially for local communities and states who have their economies around Yellowstone, but they're the same people who don't want to diminish why people are coming to Yellowstone. They can be brought in to be a part of those discussions.
The Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. In the early 1980s the park saw around 2.5 million visitors per year. Visitation has since nearly doubled. Photo by Diane Renkin/NPS
MoJo: What else is on your mind with Yellowstone?
D.W.: I’m currently chairman of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
just bought a mine, Crevice Mine, on the border of the park. One of
the things that we all are concerned about is Yellowstone is part of an
incredible ecosystem, unmatched in the Lower 48. What are those things we can
and should be doing with the ecosystem in the face of climate change? How is
climate change affecting Yellowstone? That’s a big question.
What are you having to do on streams? Today, there are more miles of stream with nonnative fish in them in Yellowstone than there were with any fish in them when Yellowstone the park was created. In the early 1900s, a fishless stream was a bad thing. We planted those with nonnative fish. Now we’re looking at where in the park we should have a refuge for native fish. What can we do to support native fish? How can we do that? The streams are getting warmer. Snow is falling at different times. There’s a lot of work being done on lake trout and nonnatives, but what else should we be doing?
So much has changed. Lewis Lake was a fishless lake in the late 1800s.
Yellowstone Lake had over 4 million cutthroat trout, but the
nonnative lake trout totally screwed up the lake ecosystem. That trend is being
reversed, but that battle is never over.
Yellowstone Lake had over 4 million cutthroat trout, but the nonnative lake trout totally screwed up the lake ecosystem. That trend is being reversed, but that battle is never over.– Dan Wenk
[Wildfire] continues to be an issue, just in terms of how long the season is going, what you can allow to burn, what you can manage and what you can't manage. The ecosystem is changing so much. Whether its businesses or homes, it’s changing the whole way you look at the potential of fire to escape Yellowstone. Then you wonder, how does that change the way you fight fires? What role does fire play in the ecosystem?
The needs of Native Americans. What are they? How can we improve that relationship? Those things will continue to be worked on forever. What level of visitor services should you provide via a concessionaire? The concession experience is a great one for many people in the park, but I also worry that it excludes many people who visit the park because of the price barriers.
Backcountry use: where do you allow it to happen? How? Is there more demand? Horse use? Where should that be allowed and not allowed? All of those things have to be thought about.
MoJo: How do you feel the relationship with the affiliated Native American tribes has changed since the 1980s?
D.W.: It's night and day. When I was there in the early ‘80s, I was the Native American liaison, along with the park landscape architect, cultural resources and compliance and everything else. None of those things are one-man offices; the park is giving it now a lot more attention.
I think the park's understanding and the park's dedication to working with Native American tribes on that whole myriad of issues—natural resources, cultural resources—is probably something that is always going to leave both sides a little bit wanting. Both will want more: more feedback, more knowledge, more access. All of those things have to be worked through with the park and Native American communities. It’s not easy for a whole host of reasons. There are so many relationships. It’s not only the park and Native American tribes, it’s Native American tribes and other Native American tribes. It’s Native American Tribes and the states.
MoJo: Is there anything else we didn’t touch on you’d like to add?
D.W.: Managing Yellowstone National Park was the greatest honor and privilege of my life. It was a great job. It was complex, it was difficult, it was incredibly rewarding. Probably the best job I ever had in my career.
MoJo: I feel like I need to check in on one last thing: did you ever figure out what happened with your leaving Yellowstone?
In case you missed it, here's Part 1 in our interview series, this with Cam Sholly.
D.W.: I never found out. The reason that was given was that they needed my talents in Washington, D.C. National Capitol Region, and it never felt that way to me. It felt punitive. I filed a FOIA request in June 2018. I still have not received a response. I check in with them on at least an annual basis. They say it's complicated. I say I'm not sure I understand how this could be complicated.
That makes me suspicious. I have no knowledge. I know there were very disparaging comments made by then-Sec. Zinke about my performance as a superintendent. That made it difficult. They cut my career short by about six months. I had planned to retire in March 2019, and I retired in September 2018, It was difficult for me. There were things I felt like the park would have benefited from by me staying another six months.
In case you missed it, here's Part 1 in our interview series, this with Cam Sholly.
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