With big crowds still descending on Yellowstone and regional disputes over bison spilling into Montana, the future of America’s first National Park is under scrutiny, especially with Dan Wenk’s imminent departure as superintendent.
Wenk (shown above) addressed this brave new world in a recent press conference. His departure — the timing of which was not of his doing — will either force a conclusion to many of his initiatives or pave the way for the next superintendent, Cam Sholly, to finish them up. So a recent phone-based press conference held by Wenk was of particular interest, as he ran down the main issues facing Yellowstone National Park and how he was addressing them before his departure.
The numbers are clear: we’ve seen a steady uptick in Yellowstone National Park visitation over the last decade. As insiders complain about the “tourons” and tourists complaining about the long lines during peak season, the Yellowstone infrastructure is impacted by the strain. With limited resources to address infrastructure, Wenk has moved to implement a data-collection system that gives Park officials information on what visitors do and what they expect within the Park. This sort of data is sorely overdue — Yellowstone is way too big and complex to rely on anecdotal information and gut feelings — and it will help guide future decisions.
Which may not go over well. Wenk specifically discussed ways to decrease car traffic in Yellowstone, including shuttle buses to environmentally sensitive areas and perhaps daily limit on cars within the Park.
The issue of how many bison can be supported by the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is always up for debate. The Yellowstone population has approached 5,500 bison in recent years, and although stockmen, state officials and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke want to see that number closer to 3,500, Wenk says Park officials are working toward a population of 4,500. There are currently discussions on addressing the population issue by sending bison to Fort Peck Indian Reservation once they’ve passed a quarantine test for brucellosis. While there’s no final deal with tribal and state officials yet, Wenk says he’s confident the bison will end up being transferred — and expressed plenty of regret that he would not be superintendent when it happens.
Xanterra made some unwelcome headlines earlier this year when peak pricing was implemented, allowing the Park’s concessionaire to raise room prices during the busiest times of the year. Also known as demand-based pricing, it’s a departure from the fixed pricing based on comparable hotel room rates in the closest gateway communities. Now, not every Yellowstone hotel can be compared to local room rates — most notably, there’s nothing as historic and high end as the Lake Hotel — and Wenk alluded to efforts to further concessionaire changes that would benefit both visitors and Xanterra. Housing and perceived affordable housing is always an issue within Yellowstone, and this is an issue that may need to also be addressed by nearest gateway communities — West Yellowstone, Gardiner and, to a lesser extent, Cody.
As for the politics of his departure: Wenk says that it doesn’t appear he was removed because he had disagreed with Zinke over the number of bison in Yellowstone: there were plenty of other personnel shifts in the National Park Service, and rather than accept a transfer to Washington, D.C., Wenk says he’d rather retire to Rapid City, where he’s already purchased a retirement house.
“I’ll accept that, that they wanted me to come back to Washington, D.C.,” he said. “But I just didn’t have that much of a career left in me and I didn’t think it was fair for me to go back and to do that.”
Photo courtesy National Park Service.