BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) — Yellowstone National Park's booming bison population, which has strained resources and created problems for nearby ranchers, is expected to reach a level that park officials would like to maintain despite being much higher than the official population goal.

Bison numbers peaked at about 5,500 in 2016, leading to 2,300 animals being hunted and slaughtered after leaving the protected national park in search of food during the past two winters.

There will be about 4,200 bison in the nation's largest wild herd once calving is finished this spring, Yellowstone bison program coordinator Tim Reid told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in a story published Thursday.

That may be an ideal number because it's the long-term population average and it strikes what Reid calls a "sociopolitical balance."

"It gets us out of this kind of episodic cycle of the last 10 years of population build up and extremely large culls that are unpopular," Reid said.

The official population goal for the park's bison population is 3,000, set in 2000 by the federal, state and tribal officials who wrote the Interagency Bison Management Plan.

Montana wildlife officials say they would need to study the matter further before agreeing to officially change the population goal from 3,000 to 4,200 bison.

"It's definitely worth discussing," said Mark Deleray, the Bozeman regional supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

One of the main concerns by Montana ranchers who want to keep the bison population low is the potential spread of the disease brucellosis, which can cause livestock to abort their young.

Bison carry brucellosis, though there hasn't been a documented case of a bison transmitting the disease to livestock.

Wildlife advocates said acceptance of a larger bison population would be welcome, but that the population goal should not be tied to a specific number.

"Any population size needs to be a fluid, flexible range that accounts for the different variables that affect bison on the landscape," said Matt Skoglund, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Northern Rockies office.

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