Lead fishing tackle, ammunition bills gaining traction in Minnesota Legislature

Separate bills that would ban small lead fishing tackle, ban lead shot on state wildlife lands and offer anglers and hunters free non-toxic alternatives all are in play this year at the state Capitol.

Mike Billington, the education program manager at the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center, handles 22-year-old bald eagle Maxime at a legislative hearing in St. Paul's State Office Building on Thursday, March 5, 2020. Sarah Mearhoff / Forum News Service

Lawmakers at the Capitol in St. Paul have introduced multiple bills this session to get the lead out of Minnesota fishing tackle and hunting ammunition, either by law — banning the stuff altogether — or by using more gentle persuasion.

One bill, SF 3892/HF 3825, would ban the use, manufacture and sale of all lead sinkers and jigs smaller than one ounce in an effort to keep the toxic tackle away from loons and other waterfowl.

Another bill, HF3342, would ban the use of lead shot while hunting all small game on state-managed wildlife areas in farmland areas.

Other bills in the House and Senate would require participants in official state-sponsored hunting events, like the governor’s deer hunting opener and governor's pheasant opener, to use non-toxic ammunition. A House bill, HF 2946, would give the University of Minnesota Raptor Center $133,000 in state funds to hold hunter workshops to promote non-toxic alternatives to lead bullets.

And two bills would spend state money to encourage hunters and anglers to voluntarily get the lead out: HF 3220 would pay for a free tackle exchange in which residents could turn in their lead fishing tackle for non-toxic alternatives like tin or tungsten. And HF 3063 would offer all new recipients of state firearms safety certificates a voucher for a free box of non-toxic ammunition, such as copper bullets for deer hunting or steel shot shotgun shells for small game and upland birds.


“The data shows that once people are exposed to non-toxic ammunition, once they use it and are comfortable with it, they are far more likely to keep using it,’’ said Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville.

Becker-Finn, an avid outdoorsperson, is the chief author of the bills offering a carrot, rather than a stick, for hunters and anglers to switch.

“For some reason whenever some people see lead in legislation they think we’re typing to end hunting or end fishing. And some people, especially people who hunt and fish, just don't like being told what to do,’’ Becker-Finn told the News Tribune.

So Becker-Finn is hoping to nudge people toward using nontoxic alternatives, rather than forcing them, by giving away samples of tackle.

“Part of the problem is that the alternatives, while they exist, aren't always on store shelves. We need to make them more available,’’ she said, adding that she senses more state residents are ready for the change.

Both of her bills were heard Thursday in the Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee without opposition, and the hearing included a visit from a bald eagle survivor of lead poisoning. The bills will be attached to a larger spending bill later in the session and given dollar amounts.

“We had a couple high-profile cases of swans dying (from lead poisoning) in my district and I’m getting constituents calling me and asking me to do something about it ... I think there is some momentum to pass something this session. The public is more aware of what’s going than they were just a few years ago,’’ Becker-Finn said.

Meanwhile Rep. Peter Fischer, DFL-Maplewood, is chief author of the House bill to ban the use, sale and manufacture of small lead fishing tackle. Fischer said he was approached by a group of Girl Scouts last year who made lead tackle and loon deaths a project. Fischer agreed to take up their cause at the Capitol. Fischer noted that the high-profile lead poisoning of groundwater and employees at the Water Gremlin plant in the Twin Cities, a major fishing tackle and battery manufacturer, raised awareness of the lead issue. In October, two state agencies ordered the shutdown of White Bear Township-based Water Gremlin after the children of employees were found to have dangerous levels of lead in their blood.


"People saw that in the news and wondered why the heck we are still making any fishing tackle out of lead, especially when they (Water Gremlin) already makes tackle out of other materials. Why are they still using lead at all?"

California has banned all lead ammunition for hunting. And several states have banned small lead fishing tackle, including New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Maine.

Some state officials have for years been trying to push non-lead alternatives for lead tackle — especially small sinkers and jigs — because loons and other water birds accidentally find them on lake bottoms and ingest them, mistaking them for grit needed to digest their food. (Former Duluth state Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon first introduced legislation to ban small lead tackle in 2007.) Yet, despite multiple alternatives, lead remains a staple of recreational fishing tackle like weights and jig heads, as well as hunting ammunition. It is especially popular in bullets for rifles but also pellets for shotgun shells not used for waterfowl. Lead is so popular because it melts quickly and is easily formed into all sorts of shapes and sizes and, especially, because it’s so cheap. Alternatives like tungsten, tin and bismuth are generally more expensive.

That lead is a nasty, sometimes deadly, neurotoxin has never been in doubt. That's the reason the stuff was taken out of paint and gasoline decades ago, to protect humans, especially children. It’s also been illegal for waterfowl hunting nationwide since 1988. Lead is highly toxic to birds, just like it is to humans and other animals, and state biologists estimate about 15% of confirmed loon deaths are from lead poisoning. Swans and other waterfowl also succumb to lead poisoning on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, bald eagles feeding on gut piles or wounded deer left behind by hunters are dying when they eat fragments of lead bullets. The University of Minnesota Raptor Center reports that up to 90 percent of the eagles they treat each year have elevated levels of lead in their blood and that 25 percent have full-blown lead poisoning. Most of those birds die. The biggest spike in eagles admitted to the center comes just after deer hunting season.

Last November, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said it would pass on a formal request to ban lead fishing tackle and lead ammunition in the state, instead punting the hot debate to the state Legislature. The DNR said it had received a formal petition from several conservation and environmental groups in September seeking the lead ban, but agency leaders decided the issue should be resolved by state lawmakers with opportunity for public input.

Meanwhile, as part of the legal settlement over the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a decade ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded Minnesota agencies more than $6 million for loon conservation efforts, in large part because most loons that spend their summers in Minnesota spend their winters in the Gulf of Mexico near where the oil spill occurred. Research since the spill has discovered contaminants in the loons and loon eggs from chemicals used in the oil spill cleanup. About $1.2 million of that settlement money will be designated over the next three years for the "Get the Lead Out" program run by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to offer non-toxic tackle free of charge.

Minnesota hosts about 12,000 loons each summer, the most of any state outside Alaska. The state also has more than 2,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles, up from just a few dozen in the 1970s. There is no indication lead is causing a major population decline in either population, but supporters of the move to non-toxic tackle and ammo say it will end needless suffering and death at very little cost to anglers.


The PCA website, , lists 38 companies that produce or sell non-toxic fishing tackle. Multiple manufacturers produce lead-free shotgun shells and rifle bullets as well, including Minnesota-based Federal Ammunition.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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