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CHEYENNE — A federal judge has allowed the Wyoming Stock Growers Association to intervene in a lawsuit in which several conservation groups are suing the federal government over elk feeding in western Wyoming.

U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson on Friday granted a request by the association to intervene in the lawsuit.

Several environmental groups went to court in February seeking a federal court order to force the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management to conduct an environmental review of more than a dozen elk feedgrounds operated by the state.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and Wyoming Outdoor Council filed the lawsuit. Representatives of the groups have said that the feedgrounds, by concentrating elk during the winter months, lead to a higher incidence of disease among the animals.

The lawsuit also sought to block the construction of additional facilities that could be used for the state's test-and-slaughter program. The state this year trapped elk at a feedground near Pinedale and killed those that tested positive for brucellosis, a disease that can cause pregnant cows to abort.

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Stock Growers Association, said Tuesday that his group is pleased with the judge's ruling. The state intervened in the lawsuit earlier.

Magagna said the association has many common interests with the state Game and Fish Department on the feedgrounds issue. However, he said the association's main interest is in protecting cattle from brucellosis.

Wyoming lost its brucellosis-free status in 2004 when the disease was found in cattle herds near state elk feedgrounds. Although the state has been researching and testing for the disease as part of its efforts to regain its brucellosis-free status, the state has also resisted the suggestion of phasing out the feedgrounds.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal said this spring that the state should continue feeding elk on feedgrounds despite a Game and Fish Department survey suggesting that 14 percent of the elk wintering on the National Elk Refuge near Jackson had been exposed to brucellosis. That rate of exposure is far higher than in other areas where the state doesn't feed elk during the winter.

Freudenthal said this spring that the state needs to continue to operate the feedgrounds to sustain the elk population. "If you don't have the feedgrounds, you're going to lose part of the population," Freudenthal said.

Tim Preso, lawyer for the conservation groups, said his clients didn't object to Wyoming Stock Growers Association entering the lawsuit. He said no substantive hearings in the case have been scheduled yet.

Eric Keszler, a Game and Fish Department spokesman, said the state established elk feedgrounds in western Wyoming years ago to sustain elk herds after the animals lost winter habitat to housing and other development.

Keszler said the department takes the position that it doesn't need approval from the federal land management agencies to feed elk or take other wildlife-management actions.

"The only thing we need permission on is any structures that are built on those lands, not the actual practice of feeding elk," Keszler said.

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