Elk are ambling out of Yellowstone National Park and into Montana by the thousands in search of winter forage, the heaviest migration in years, and more than 1,000 have been slaughtered.

The influx delights hunters, but wildlife managers are worried. Many more elk could die of cold and starvation if the severe winter persists.Game managers face the same problem with park bison.

There are already more elk on Montana's winter ranges than last year, and they came out much earlier, said Tom Lemke, a wildlife biologist with the Montana Depart- ment of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Lemke said the count in mid January in one key area was nearly 7,800 elk. Last year the count was less than 2,000.

Hunters reduced the herd size by slightly more than 1,000 animals in the first three of seven weekend special-permit hunts. Only 1,400 were killed in all of last winter's hunts.

"If we continue at the current pace, we'll set a late-season harvest record in the neighborhood of 2,400," Lemke said.

Even with the big harvest, however, the elk could be in trouble if harsh weather persists and drives more out of the park.

"They had heavy early snows, then significant rainfall," Lemke said. "That has created significant layers of ice in the snowpack. You go through a foot or two of snow, then a couples of inches of ice, then more snow. That's tough."

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The stress of those conditions has started showing up in the elk hunters bring to check stations.

"From the way it looks now, inside the park, we're going to have some significant mortality," Lemke said. "Outside the park, it just depends on how many more elk come out."

Lemke estimates 6,000 to 6,500 elk will remain on the winter range after the late hunts. It supported that many last year, and the forage is reasonable this winter, he said.

But if the number is higher, he said, "there's a likelihood of significant winter mortality outside the park, too."

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