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Bemidji conference to focus on ammo, lead lures

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BEMIDJI — An annual gathering of scientists and conservationists may give new life to statewide talks on the best way to prevent Minnesota’s birds from being accidentally poisoned by lead tackle and ammunition.

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A large part of the Minnesota Chapter of The Wildlife Society conference in Bemidji that starts Tuesday will focus on the lethal impact of lead on the region’s wildlife. Biologists will present research on the the trends of loons and other fish-eating birds swallowing lead tackle and then dying of lead poisoning. It will also feature studies on bald eagles accidentally eating bullet and shotgun slug fragments in the carrion left over from kills that hunters leave behind.

In come cases, the government has stepped in to ban lead outright, like in 1991 when the U.S. instituted a ban to keep lead out of the shotgun shells waterfowl hunters use after research showed that it caused at least 2 million waterfowl deaths per year. Canada banned lead shot completely in 1999 and lead fishing sinkers in national parks in 1997.

With lead tackle, there have been Minnesota initiatives both for a voluntary reduction in lead products and for a statewide ban, but none with lasting success. The American Sportfishing Association says there’s not enough data to support either a nationwide ban or bans in specific states.

Eric Naig, a brand manager with Northland Fishing Tackle in Bemidji said although a hypothetical statewide ban on lead tackle would cause “supply chain issues” for Northland, it wouldn’t be all bad.

“As far as our business goes, it would be an opportunity to sell more products,” he said.

Northland already makes non-lead jigs out of bismuth and tungsten, with new tungsten products in development, he said. The the company ships its non-lead jigs to states with some form of lead tackle ban, such as New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine.

However, Naig estimated about 95 percent of Northland’s jig sales are of lead products compared to sales of the non-lead versions. That’s because anglers just don’t want to pay extra money for tackle they’ll likely lose in the lake.

“Cost is a big factor,” he said. “Tungsten is probably 20 times more expensive than lead. Bismuth is a little less…probably 10 times more expensive than lead.”

Steve Windels, who heads up the committee organizing the conference, said interest in the lead issue has been on the rise in past year. Although the Minnesota chapter isn’t favoring either a ban or a voluntary lead reduction with the conference itself, the group’s official position emphasizes the voluntary approach.

“(The Wildlife Society) is not necessarily promoting any particular strategy at this point,” said Windels, who is also president-elect of the Minnesota chapter. “We just want to have folks from all the different sides of the table come together to present their ideas and then have a discussion about it.”

In addition to the research presentation, there will also be a panel discussion that will include biologists and a representative from the ammunition industry. The conference will take place Tuesday-Thursday in the South Shore Conference Center. For more information, visit the wildlife society’s website at mntws.org.

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