Minnesota state lawmakers are starting to talk about more than just COVID-19 and battling with each other, with legislation introduced in recent weeks that would ban the use of small lead fishing jigs and sinkers and another bill to lower the state’s general walleye bag limit from six fish to four.

Minnesota lawmakers are in their long session, held every other year, that started Jan. 4 and is set to run to May 17. So don’t expect anything to happen too quickly, with several hearings to be held on each bill before anything advances.

Bills must pass both the Senate and House in the same form and then be signed by the governor to become law.

The lead fishing tackle ban, which has been introduced several times in recent decades but has always failed to advance, addresses a chronic issue of lead poisoning of loons and other birds when the birds ingest small sinkers and jigs lost by anglers while fishing.

Lead is a highly toxic substance, banned for years in gasoline and paint because of deadly toxicity to humans and also banned in shotgun ammunition for waterfowl hunting. Even a tiny lead sinker can kill loons, which ingest the lead pieces while picking up small pebbles on the bottoms of lakes and rivers that are used to digest their food.

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The bills would ban the manufacture, sale and use of lead tackle one ounce or smaller in weight or smaller than 2.5 inches long.

The bills give anglers, stores and manufacturers more than three years — until July 1, 2024 — to make the transition to non-toxic tackle such as tungsten, brass or tin. The lead ban would not apply to larger sinkers, weights or jigs heavier than an ounce, or to lead core fishing line, larger bottom bouncers, spoons or other tackle.

Several other states and provinces already have enacted similar bans of small lead fishing tackle.

Critics of a lead ban have said Minnesota’s loon population is not declining and that the move will cost anglers more money for lead substitutes like tungsten. But supporters say the cost increase is just pennies per unit and that any loons killed by lead poisoning, when other tackle options exist, is too many.

The chief sponsor of HF157 is Rep. Peter Fisher, DFL-Maplewood. The chief sponsor of SF247 is Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood.

Four walleye limit

State Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, has introduced a bill to lower the state’s general walleye bag limit from six fish daily to four fish.

The bill, HF100, wouldn’t impact lakes or rivers that already have special regulations or lower walleye limits, such as Mille Lacs or Red Lake, but would impact waters where the current limit is six. The Senate version of the bill, SF12, was introduced by Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point.

Supporters say increasing angling pressure, in part due to increased technology, is leading to too many walleyes being taken out of some Minnesota lakes. Unlike other species that are mostly catch-and-release — like bass and musky — most anglers keep as many legal walleyes to eat as is allowed. If they catch them.

The statewide walleye limit hasn't changed in Minnesota since 1956 when it went from eight to six.

"I just think it's time to do this statewide. We've had a four-walleye limit on Rainy (Lake) for maybe 20 years now and it's worked well,'' Ecklund said. "It might help simplify things if we could go to four walleyes statewide, at least on most of the lakes."

Brad Parsons, DNR fisheries section manager, said the agency fully supports the bag limit reduction, as much for social impact as biological impact. No neighboring state has a six-walleye limit. And Parsons noted most of Minnesota's most popular and productive walleye lakes already have reduced limits and other special regulations.

"We do believe that people are getting more efficient at catching fish, and with social media, there can really be a fast impact on the fishery'' when fishing is hot, Parsons said. "I don't have any data to tell you that it's going to leave more walleyes in any specific lake, that it will help improve fishing in any lake. But socially, and for conservation, we believe it's the right thing to do."

Critics of lowering the limit say it will have virtually no biological impact because so few anglers ever catch five or six walleyes in a single day. Creel surveys show the average number of walleyes caught is generally less than three per day, per angler, so the limit would have to be cut to two fish daily to have much of an impact.

Rifles allowed statewide for deer, CWD battle bolstered

Ecklund also is the chief author of a bill already advancing at the Capitol that would expand rifle use for deer hunting statewide, not just in the northern regions, eliminating the shotgun-only zone that has existed for most of southern and far western Minnesota for decades.

Bob Meier, the DNR's assistant commissioner for policy and government relations, testified Tuesday in favor of the provision, saying it simplifies statewide regulations. Rifles already are used statewide for coyote and fox hunting, and high-caliber handguns already are used for deer hunting statewide, noted Pat Rivers, deputy DNR director of fish and wildlife. Rivers said allowing rifles statewide will have no impact on deer management. DNR enforcement officials also supported the change.

Ecklund’s bill, HF219, also addresses chronic wasting disease issues. The bill creates new requirements for deer farms, including one to immediately notify the DNR of an escaped animal if the animal is not returned or captured within 24 hours. The bill also requires identification of farmed white-tailed deer to include certain contact information of the owner. It allows a licensed hunter to kill and possess an escaped farmed cervidae (deer, moose or elk) without being liable to the owner for the loss of the animal and requires farmed cervidae killed by a hunter or the DNR to be tested for CWD at the farmer’s expense.

Ecklund’s legislation also expands a provision prohibiting the importation of deer and elk carcasses. Under current law, a person cannot import a hunter-harvested deer, moose or elk carcass unless it has been processed to meet certain requirements to ensure it has been cleaned of all brain tissue and the spinal column. The bill expands the provision to all deer, moose and elk carcasses, not just those harvested by hunters.

Ecklund’s bill also includes changes to muzzleloader regulations regarding when electronic ignition guns are considered unloaded and also permanently allows portable deer stands within wildlife management areas in Northwestern Minnesota.

The bill passed the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance & Policy Committee on Tuesday and now advances in the process.

Permit to carry good for firearms safety

HF119, introduced by Rep. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield, and SF283, introduced by Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, would allow hunters to substitute a valid permit to carry instead of having a firearms safety certificate. Firearms safety certificates currently are required for anyone born since 1980 before they can purchase a state hunting license.

More firearms safety, hunting, angling classes in schools

HF320, introduced by Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, would provide $1 million to the DNR over the next two years for a new grant program to local school districts to provide enhanced firearms safety, hunting, archery and angling activities as part of physical education classes.

Voyageur Country ATV Trail gets cash

Ecklund has introduced a bill to give $950,000 over the next two years to expansion of the North Country ATV trail in far northern St. Louis County that links the Iron Range with the border region around Voyageurs National Park.

Money from HF45 would go to trail projects from Ely to International Falls — including Ash River, Orr, Cook and Kabetogama — for bridges and connecting trails.