BILLINGS (AP) — A new superintendent was named Wednesday to Yellowstone National Park, one of the crown jewels of the U.S. park system, after his predecessor said he was being forced out by the Trump administration following a dispute over bison.
Cameron “Cam” Sholly will replace Dan Wenk, who has been superintendent since 2011.
Wenk planned to retire next March but was told last week he would be gone by August. He said his ouster followed disagreements with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke over the size of the park’s world-famous bison herds.
Ranchers and state livestock officials in neighboring Montana, where Zinke served as a U.S. representative before he became Interior secretary, have pushed to reduce the size of the herds because of concerns over the disease brucellosis. About half of Yellowstone’s bison test positive for the disease, which can cause animals to prematurely abort their young.
Park biologists contend the population of more than 4,000 bison is sustainable. But Zinke and his staff have said the number is too high, Wenk said, and have raised concerns that Yellowstone’s scenic Lamar Valley is being damaged by overgrazing.
The Interior Department has not commented on Wenk’s claims.
Sholly served as Midwest regional director for the park service since 2015, where he was involved in reintroducing wolves to Isle Royale National Park, oversaw a $380 million renovation of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and worked to improve relations with American Indian tribes, according to the Interior Department.
Sholly did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In a statement put out by the Interior Department, he said he was honored to have the chance to work at Yellowstone, established in 1872 as the first national park.
Yellowstone covers 3,400 square miles straddling the borders of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Its erupting geysers, cascading waterfalls and abundant wildlife attract tourists from around the world.
More than 4 million people visited in each of the past three years and last month was the park’s busiest May on record. That’s put an increasing strain on its natural resources and led to frequent conflicts between people and wildlife, including visitors injured by grizzly bears, bison, elk and other animals.
Sholly is a third-generation park service employee and went to high school just north of Yellowstone in Gardiner, Montana, when his father was assigned to Yellowstone, said Alex Picavet, chief of communications for the park service’s Midwest region.
His first job for the park service was in Yellowstone in 1990, as a seasonal worker in the park’s maintenance division, Picavet said. Sholly, an Army veteran who was deployed to the Gulf War, later served as chief of ranger operations for Yosemite National Park and superintendent of Natchez Trace Parkway, a scenic byway that runs through Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama.
Wenk pledged a smooth transition and said Sholly would be a “really good fit for Yellowstone” given his variety of experiences in the park service.
At Yellowstone, he’ll oversee an 800-person staff and an annual budget of more than $60 million.
“The Midwest region is very sad to have him leave,” Picavet said. “He’s a strong leader who has brought amazing change and opportunity to the Midwest region.”
Sholly’s start date is yet to be determined, said Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift.
His father, Dan Sholly, gained prominence as Yellowstone’s chief ranger in the 1980s and 1990s, a period that included the controversial reintroduction of gray wolves and the massive fires of 1988 that burned hundreds of thousands of acres in the park. He was demoted and transferred to Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida following allegations in 1997 from his former secretary that Sholly denied. An administrative judge determined Dan Sholly misbehaved but dismissed a sexual harassment claim against him.
Yellowstone faced a more extensive harassment scandal under Wenk that echoed problems in other national parks.
Members of the park’s maintenance department were disciplined last year after an investigation found female employees faced sexual harassment and other problems.
Wenk said those problems never were brought up in discussions about his possible transfer or retirement that led up to his ouster.