BILLINGS, Mont. — Democrats in Congress pressed U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Friday to explain the reassignments of dozens of senior agency officials, most recently Yellowstone National Park's superintendent, who was offered an unwanted transfer and then told he'd be gone in August.
A group of 14 Democrats led by U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman of California asked Zinke for a briefing on the reassignments after their requests for a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee were denied.
The personnel moves have attracted scrutiny from the Interior Office of the Inspector General — the agency's internal watchdog — over complaints that many were politically motivated.
The ouster of Yellowstone's Dan Wenk followed disagreements with Zinke and his staff over management of the park's bison, according to Wenk.
The livestock industry in Montana, Zinke's home state, wants the park's bison herds reduced to 3,000 animals out of fear they could spread a disease to cattle.
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 raised concerns that Yellowstone's scenic Lamar Valley is being damaged by overgrazing.
Zinke has said he's reorganizing his agency for greater efficiency. His office has refused to comment directly on the removal of Wenk and did not respond to questions about the matter on Friday.
A recent investigation into 35 personnel reassignments proposed in the Interior Department under Zinke revealed that 16 senior employees viewed their moves as political retribution or punishment for their work on climate change, energy or conservation.
However, the Interior Department inspector general was not able to determine if anything illegal occurred because agency leaders did not document their rationale for the moves.
The Democratic lawmakers said in a letter to Zinke that Wenk had served with distinction and his pending removal from the park fit a pattern of seemingly punitive personnel moves.
"We fear the action against Mr. Wenk is intended to send a signal to other career personnel that they will be penalized if they remain loyal to the United States as opposed to a political agenda," the lawmakers wrote.
Wenk already had announced plans to retire in 2019 when his superiors told him he had to be gone in August to make way for his replacement, longtime park service official Cameron "Cam" Sholly. Wenk said Friday that he has not yet been given a firm departure date.