Environmental group protests Zinke’s staff cuts at wildlife center

June 11 (UPI) — An environmental group sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Monday protesting summer closures at a Montana wildlife visitor center over staff cuts.

The National Bison Range — the 10th most visited refuge in the National Wildlife Refuge System with more than 200,000 visitors a year — has a third less staff than it had 15 years ago, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said in the letter.

“One of Montana’s major tourist attractions is operating with so few staff, its visitor center is forced to close two days a week throughout the summer,” a news release announcing the letter said. “These Tuesday and Wednesday closures that also deny access to the visitor center’s public restrooms during its busiest season are unprecedented.”

The smaller staff means there are no safety orientations for visitors before they enter the one-way 19-mile loop road to view the 400 bison inside the 18,900-acre refuge on days the visitor center is closed. It also means one law enforcement officer must spread his duties out over a “large area.” Further, having insufficient staff to control fence maintenance has led to pneumonia spreading among the bighorn sheep herd.

“For two days a week the Bison Range is open but nobody is home,” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said in the release, noting that the refuge’s public bathrooms are in the visitor center that is locked those two days. “The first thing visitors typically need after a long ride is a trip to the restroom.”

Last year, Zinke halted an Obama-era plan to transfer the Montana land to tribal control.

“As secretary, my job is to look 100 years forward at all of Interior’s resources,” Zinke told the Hill. “I recognize the Bison Range is a critical part of our past, present and future, which is why I have changed course.”

In other bison management news, the outgoing superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, Dan Wenk, told The Hill he believes he was reassigned to a Washington, D.C.,-based job based on disagreement with Zinke over management of the 4,000-plus bison at Yellowstone.

Wenk said the number of bison was manageable while Zinke said the numbers were too high.

“I assumed, because I believed we were doing the right thing to follow the mission of the National Park Service, I thought science was going to win the day,” Wenk told the Hill.

Wenk announced last week he would retire in 2019 after being offered the transfer.