Some died because much of their traditional winter forage was burned by last year's fires, while other "geriatric" members of the northern elk herd simply were living on borrowed time thanks to several lush summers and mild winters, according to Yellowstone biologists.
In the weeks to come more elk will die as the winter kill reaches its zenith and others that survive the winter in a weakened condition likely will fall prey to the ravenous grizzlies that just now are emerging from their dens.
"It's gonna be good pickings this spring for bears, as well as other scavengers," said Stu Coleman, Yellowstone's resource management specialist.
While some park visitors will rush to the park in the weeks ahead hoping to spot a grizzly straddling a kill, others likely will find the sight sickening, realizes park spokeswoman Joan Anzelmo.
"This winter we are experiencing a higher winter mortality, natural winter mortality in wildlife," she said. "And that's been making headlines and we just want to remind people that even despite this winter mortality there will be abundant wildlife to view this summer, both newborn calves of bison and elk and the other young of the other species."
With the winter kill up and elk carcasses plentiful, rangers will be stressing the need for Yellowstone visitors to keep away from the carrion, said Coleman.
"You always have those kinds of problems," he said when asked about the tourists and photographers intent on spotting a grizzly. "You know, the best thing you can do is to try to warn and enforce the regulations. And we try to keep a close monitoring - as close as you can do on these kinds of things - of the carcasses."
This monitoring is accomplished through the use of a park map on which the carcasses' locations are pinpointed.
"And if they're in an area . . . well, let's say in a geyser basin where there's a formalized trail, and there's any indication at all that there's a carcass there and a bear is using it, we close the area," Coleman said. "You let them (the bears) clean it up and then open it again.
"We're just extra sensitive at this time of year to carcass availability, location, who's using it, where it might be located," he continued. "It also presents a problem because sometimes you have to remove these carcasses, especially in developed areas.
"You don't want the animals coming into the developed areas ... because they may become habituated to it. Plus, there's a lot greater chance they'll be hit by an automobile or something like that."
The problem with removing carcasses from high-traffic areas of Yellowstone is that there are only so many places where they can be dropped for the bears to devour, said Coleman.
"You're somewhat limited because usually you have to get in to it with a wheeled vehicle. And you don't want to put all the carcasses in one place. Then you start to modify the behavior of that bear," he added. "You've got an artificial garbage site, so to speak. So you try to put a carcass in and let it get cleaned up, and then put another carcass in some time later. Naturally you run out of some of these places."