A coalition of 21 conservation groups, led by the Friends of Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas, has petitioned the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to ban the use of lead ammunition and lead fishing tackle in scientific and natural areas and state parks because of the potential harm to wildlife species like loons, eagles and swans.

The “petition for rulemaking,” received by the DNR last week, cites evidence that lead poisoning remains a significant cause of death for nongame wildlife even though unleaded alternatives are available for both fishing tackle and hunting ammunition.

The DNR acknowledged receipt of the petition Oct. 18, and, under state statutes, has 60 days to provide a specific and detailed written reply.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin that is harmful and even fatal to many living creatures, including humans. It’s been banned from gasoline and paint in the U.S. for decades. In 1987, Minnesota banned the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting, and the federal government followed suit in 1991. But the DNR in the past has denied similar petitions, most recently in 2019, avoiding imposing any additional lead restrictions. Agency officials said the issue would be better resolved by the state Legislature where it has often failed to advance due to opposition from some state hunting and fishing groups as well as major ammunition and tackle manufacturers in the state.

Lead shot and fishing tackle can cause secondary lead poisoning in wildlife that are not the target of hunting and fishing. A very small amount of lead left behind, such as one small jig or sinker or one piece of shot, can fatally poison a loon or an eagle. Loons pick up the tackle mistaken for small pebbles they need to digest their food. Eagles pick up pieces of lead shot and lead bullet fragments while feeding on dead birds and animals.

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The DNR website states that “where loons breed, lead poisoning from sinkers or jigs may account for up to 50% of the dead adult loons found by researchers.” The Minnesota DNR and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency have received federal and state funding to encourage hunters and anglers to voluntarily switch to available nontoxic alternatives.

The petition, even if successful, might be more symbolic than effective at saving loons and eagles because very little hunting and fishing is done in most state parks and most Scientific and Natural Areas. Combined they make up less than 1% of the state’s area but, by state law, must be preserved at a higher level of environmental protection.

“Scientific and Natural Areas are Minnesota’s crown jewels of our state land base,” Tom Casey, chairman of the Friends of Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas, said in a statement. “The time has long passed to require nontoxic ammunition and fishing tackle.”

Carrol Henderson, a retired DNR wildlife manager who led the state’s nongame wildlife program for decades, has for years pushed to ban small lead fishing tackle and lead ammunition, noting lead-free alternatives are easy to find. Henderson said he’s a lifelong hunter and dismissed allegations that the push to unleaded is somehow anti-hunting.

“This transition to nontoxic ammo and tackle will improve the image of hunters as conservationists who care about all wildlife — not just game species,’’ Henderson said in a statement. “If hunters and anglers continue to insist that they must use lead for ammo and fishing tackle, they tarnish their image as conservationists. This petition is for all Minnesotans who care about wildlife, hunters and nonhunters.”

A state analysis of venison donated by hunters to state food shelves found that 7% contained lead fragments that made it unsafe for human consumption, and some hunters have switched to unleaded deer hunting bullets to protect their families from potential lead poisoning.