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Elk being collared at Wind Cave National Park

Elk run down a hill on Wednesday at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. Crews installed radio collars on the elk as part of a three year study on their movements in and near the park. (AP photo)

HOT SPRINGS (AP) -- Officials have hired a helicopter crew to snag and collar elk at a southwestern South Dakota park, some of which will be pushed out to make the herd more manageable.

They want to add 36 collared elk to the 40 already wearing tracking collars at Wind Cave National Park. They had reached 26 elk by the end of Wednesday, the Rapid City Journal reported.

It takes only a matter of minutes for the crew to fire a net over an elk from the air, collar it and take a blood sample on the ground, then release the animal.

"They're very delicate animals, even though they're big and strong," said Jim Pope, pilot and owner of Leading Edge Aviation of Clarkston, Wash. "Our concern for the animals is paramount."

The park used to round up excess elk and sell them to American Indian tribes out of state, but the practice was ended a few years ago when chronic wasting disease was found in the herd.

Officials in about a month plan to push hundreds of elk outside the park boundaries to reduce a bloated herd and prevent overgrazing. The elk would be available to hunters outside of the park, and officials also hope they will boost a depleted elk herd in the adjoining Custer State Park.

Tracking the collared elk will help officials determine the success of that plan.

"We'll be following some that stay in the park, and we'll find out where some that leave the park end up," Wind Cave biologist Duane Weber said.