Bighorn Canyon Supt. Tranel promoted but leaves behind strong team

By David Peck

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area Supt. Mike Tranel has received a promotion to become deputy superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, but he’s not leaving the cupboard bare with a strong team in place at the park near Lovell, he said in an interview this week.

Tranel, a 35-year veteran of the National Park Service, oversees four Park Service units from his main office in Lovell as superintendent of the Powder River Group: Bighorn Canyon, the Little Bighorn Battlefield, Devils Tower National Monument and the Fort Laramie Historic Site.

He has served in that capacity since moving to the area from Alaska in May of 2018. He will assume his duties in Yellowstone in early February.

“When I came here, the conversation I had with my boss, the deputy regional director in Denver, was that it would be a three- to five-year tenure, so it’s sooner than expected. But opportunities like that are few and far between. You can’t schedule it for May of 2023. I’m anticipating that there was maybe a little bit of surprise in the community.”

Tranel served as interim deputy superintendent in Yellowstone in February, March and April when Yellowstone’s deputy supt. filled in at the regional office in Denver and since then has been named superintendent of Shenandoah National Park to create the vacancy Tranel is filling.

Tranel said he’s pleased be able to remain in the region, with many siblings in the area and his mother living in Billings. He said he will move from Red Lodge to the park headquarters in Mammoth.

A strong team

Tranel said that, although he is leaving Bighorn Canyon sooner than perhaps initially planned, he is pleased with the team he leaves behind.

Asked what he is most proud of from his time at Bighorn Canyon, he quickly replied, “I would say the most important thing is getting the right people in the right jobs. My main message to the community is that I found some hidden talent, much of which is local. The leadership team for this park I believe is the best that the park has ever had.

“If anyone were to ask if the positive trends will continue after I leave, I would say absolutely, because what’s driving that is the people in the key leadership positions.”

He noted Christy Fleming as chief of interpretation, Chris Valdez as chief ranger and Tyler Ennis as facilities manager, noting of Ennis, “He’s great in that role. That’s a move that really helps us fix things.”

He said Bill Pickett is a project manager who has “been able to really help us match up the funding with the needs,” adding, “He’s the reason that Ewing-Snell (reconstruction) will get done. I don’t need to be here for that to get done. He’ll get that on the right pathway.”

Tranel continued that he’s been pleased to elevate Todd Johnson, with his vast experience in military leadership positions, from his initial position as an interpretive ranger to his current post as a management assistant.

“Todd is one of the best examples of the veterans hiring authority that we have,” Tranel said. “He was a GS-5 park ranger at the front desk, not that that’s not an important job, but I recognized that he had the ability to do some pretty amazing things. If you look at his military experience, he’s had a pretty high level of responsibility.

“He’s helped tremendously with getting our commercial services operations to where they need to be. He’s instrumental in what Mark Garrison (marina operator) is doing at Horseshoe Bend. Mark is interested in doing more at Horseshoe Bend, and that requires management to figure out how you move that along. He was also instrumental in turning things around at Ok-A-Beh.”

He also mentioned resource manager Virginia DuBowy, noting, “The resource management program here is solid.”

“Those are all things that are really important,” Tranel said. “That’s what I mean by the right people in the right jobs. I want the community here to be confident that all that local talent will mean that Bighorn Canyon is going to continue to be on the right path and continue to improve.

“That’s my most important message. I’ve said things to them like, ‘You guys are going to do great and you may not know it yet, but you’re going to be very successful.’”

Along that same line, Tranel said he’s proud of instilling a sense of “showing what’s possible (at Bighorn Canyon)” and being “clear on the vision and know how things should look.”

He said that improving facilities, fixing the entrance sign, improvements at Horseshoe Bend, signage in the park, fixing things and cleaning things up are all part of “what’s possible” at Bighorn Canyon, along with improving customer service, internal teamwork and working with commercial operators in the park.

“Mark (Garrison) has wanted to do more, and we’ve worked with him to create those opportunities,” Tranel said. “We’ve found some creative ways to get things done working with groups like the Friends of the Lake. They’ve invested time and money.”

The transition

Tranel said he wants to avoid the situation that Bighorn Canyon went through before his arrival where the Park Service managed the park for about two years using a series of rotating, temporary superintendents.

“That’s a challenging thing for a park, and that is probably for staff here – legitimately, based on their experience -- their biggest fear,” Tranel said. “Recognizing that right away, in my initial conversation with my boss (Deputy Regional Director Kate Hammond), we talked right away about bringing in an interim superintendent in an acting capacity. We announced that last week, and the deadline is tomorrow (Tuesday). Based on conversations I’ve had with some of them (applicants), I know we’ll be able to get somebody good.”

Tranel said he hopes to have an interim superintendent in place by late January so he and the acting superintendent can overlap and work together before he leaves for Yellowstone. He said the Park Service hopes to advertise the permanent vacancy within the next couple of weeks with a goal of having the position filled by the beginning of next summer.

“The goal is to just have the one acting assignment and then the permanent replacement,” he said. “My boss and I have worked on the best possible plan to prevent that scenario of two years of one acting (supt.) after another, because that makes it hard to stay with the same vision.”

Tranel said one thing that will help with the transition is a strategic plan for the park that has been developed over the past couple of years that clearly spells out the priorities for park management, as well as core values for all four parks in the Powder River Group.

He said his replacement will also supervise and oversee the Powder River Group, based out of Bighorn Canyon, either at Fort Smith or Lovell. He said it’s important to offer Lovell as a duty station in terms of schools for a family and other factors.

“With all the division chiefs I’ve hired, I’ve always offered the options with duty stations,” Tranel said. “What we’re finding is that Lovell gives us better recruitment and retention options.”

Another goal, he said, is to avoid the prior history of superintendents coming to Bighorn Canyon as the closing chapter of their career, noting that when he was hired as a younger superintendent, former Rep. Elaine Harvey joked, “We’ve got a live one now.”

“I would reassure people that that’s the case, because the track record of my superior (Hammond) for hiring superintendents is very good,” Tranel said. “Just the approach to how someone is selected for the position bodes well for the future, I think.”

Tranel noted that Hammond formerly worked as the superintendent at Little Bighorn Battlefield, so she knows the area.

The future

Looking ahead, Tranel said it will be important to continue with facilities upgrades, work to improve commercial services on the North District, add fuel sales at Horseshoe Bend, continue the strong administrative team, recognize local talent and support employee development, which he said is a legacy he wants to pass on, noting, “That’s the key to the success here. That’s the reason we made so much progress in the last couple of years and the reason why we’ll continue to do well in this park.

“It’s not limited to just finding the right people for the right jobs but to support people in professional growth.”

Tranel said the challenge to advancing the long-awaited Bighorn Canyon Parkway is a need to first settle jurisdictional issues in the North District between the Crow Tribe and the federal government.

He added that he believes he can help create opportunities for Yellowstone and Bighorn Canyon to work together as National Park Service entities to promote regional opportunities for tourism. He pointed out that Bighorn Canyon actively participated in Park Days in Cody in May of 2019 with Yellowstone and Grand Teton for the first time. He said he’s known Yellowstone Supt. Cam Sholly for years and has had conversations about “ways to help each other.”

He also noted that he is a member of the Park Service regional leadership council, which advises the regional director on park issues, as the representative for Montana and Wyoming. He said Yellowstone is developing material to help visitors enjoy places as they are “coming and going” to and from Yellowstone.

As he moves on, Tranel said he will miss working with the people in north Big Horn County, mentioning Harvey, Keith Grant and Linda Morrison. He said he also appreciated meeting Gov. Mark Gordon.

“I’ve really enjoyed working with everybody,” he said. “It’s been an enjoyable experience just to be enthusiastic together about making forward progress to bring visitors in and show them a good time.

“I’ll miss the Big Horns. It’s been great to be back in the area. We’re used to long distances anyway, so I don’t see myself as really leaving the region.”

Tranel grew up near Big Horn, Wyo., as well as Ashland and Broadview, Mont. He’s a graduate of Billings Central High School. He and his wife, Mary Tidlow, have three daughters. Tidlow also works for the Park Service as an architect in the park Facilities Management Division.