BOZEMAN (AP) – Officials say the elk population in the northern part of Yellowstone National Park and southern Montana is stable after dropping over the past few years, though biologists are warning that after a set of mild winters, there is a possibility that harsher winters could change that in the future.

The Northern Yellowstone Cooperative Wildlife Working Group counted 4,900 elk in the region this winter. That’s up from last year’s count of 4,840 elk, but still down sharply from the highest count in recent years, when biologists saw more than 6,000 in 2010, and down from 19,000 in the mid-1990s.

“In a way it’s good news,” said Doug Smith, a Yellowstone National Park biologist. “We think we have a fairly stable elk herd.”

The number of elk in that region has been the subject of a debate between outfitters, hunters and wildlife officials for several months.

Wildlife officials proposed capping the number of hunters in one hunting district near Gardiner at 75, a huge drop from the number allowed to hunt there now, which is about 1,500 in heavily trafficked years. Wildlife officials cite unsustainable hunting, while opponents argue the herd isn’t in a biological crisis.

The count is an estimate, based on airplane surveillance. They were documented by the number of elk and didn’t classify them by sex or age.

Karen Loveless, a biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said she flew over the area in late December and kept track of the bulls, an indication of the herd’s health. She saw 116 brow-tine bulls, which are bulls older than about 2 years. Of those, she said about 44 percent were six-point or better, and about 56 percent were five-point or smaller, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported.

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