Minnesota’s small-game hunters have deposited more than 5,300 tons of lead shot on state lands over the past 30 years, based on estimates from a state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) study.

During that time, an estimated 1,300 tons were left on state wildlife management areas in the farmland zone — lands that often contain wetlands where waterfowl feed.

Those numbers come from a little-publicized 2018 DNR study that estimated small-game hunters deposited 178 tons — or 357,048 pounds — of lead during the 2017 hunting season.

Multiply 178 tons by 30 years, and you get the eye-popping numbers above. Covering 40 years — about how long I’ve been upland bird hunting — the amount of lead shot left behind by us small-game hunters just on public land would total more than 7,000 tons — or 14 million pounds.

And that likely vastly underestimates the amount of lead we’ve sprayed into the environment over that time. Because in 2017, when hunters were surveyed for the study, small-game license sales (243,000) and estimated number of pheasant hunters (45,000) were among the lowest on record. In 2008, for example, 290,000 small-game licenses were sold, and there were an estimated 107,000 pheasant hunters.

Also, more upland bird hunters are using nontoxic steel shot in recent years than they did 20, 30 or 40 years ago, meaning yearly lead shot deposition likely was far higher years ago than it is now.

The eye-popping lead estimates underscore the need to get rid of lead shot.

I am a responsible hunter who cares about wildlife habitat, the environment and the future of hunting, and I can’t justify putting a known toxin into the environment. Especially when there’s an alternative: nontoxic shotgun shells. Most of my bird-hunting friends and I switched to steel shot more than 20 years ago.

And a growing percentage of Minnesota small-game hunters are doing the same. The DNR study found that 21.3 % of them never use lead shot. That’s up from 13.6 % in a 2008 survey.

Still, 57.7 % said they always or mostly used lead shot. That makes no sense.

Lead shot has been banned for waterfowl hunting in Minnesota for more than 30 years because waterfowl were ingesting spent pellets found on the bottom of wetlands and waterways, killing birds. But it’s also been banned for the past 20 years for upland hunters using federal waterfowl production areas or federal refuges.

In Minnesota, those lands often are near or adjacent to the state’s wildlife management areas, where lead shot is allowed. Pheasant hunters — me included — often hunt both. And the coincidence: Most of those state lands have wetlands on them.

So we prohibit lead shot on federal lands but allow it on nearly identical state lands nearby.

The easy solution, many like me concluded years ago, was to simply switch to steel shot and not have to worry if we crossed onto federal lands with illegal lead shot in our guns or vests.

It also made sense environmentally.

Lead has long been banned from gasoline, paint, toys and other products because of the concern over lead poisoning.

When it comes to lead shot for upland hunting, Minnesota remains behind neighboring states, too. South Dakota requires nontoxic shot on its state Game Production Areas. And Iowa bans lead shot on most of its state lands.

Why hasn’t Minnesota acted to get rid of lead shot?

It’s not for lack of trying. The issue has been simmering for decades in St. Paul. The DNR has long proposed banning lead shot on its state wildlife management areas in the southern farmland zone, making a push as recently as 2016.

That ban would have covered about 400,000 acres of the states 1.3 million acre wildlife management area system — those acres in the state’s farmland zone, not the 900,000 acres in the forest zone.

Of the 3,740 people who commented on that proposal, 59 % supported the ban.

But political opposition from legislators — pressured by some hunters, the National Rifle Association and ammo-makers — has always killed proposals to restrict lead shot. In 2017, the Legislature passed a bill that temporarily prohibited the DNR from restricting lead shot. That ban expired July 1.

Opponents have said there is no scientific evidence that lead shot left in upland areas have affected wildlife. They also sometimes argue nontoxic shot is less effective hunting pheasants and other birds and that it’s too expensive. Or they say lead shot restrictions would be anti-hunting.

But there’s no argument lead is a toxin. Lead shot deposited by hunters will be in our fields and wetlands long after we’re gone.

I would argue banning lead shot isn’t anti-hunting, it’s pro-hunting. The issue is indefensible for hunters. Getting rid of lead shot eliminates an argument against hunting by anti-hunters.

And it would underscore our legacy as conservationists who have long put our money where our mouth is in support of wildlife and habitat.

The latest DNR study was done at the request of the Legislature. It remains to be seen whether it will spark lawmakers to finally do the right thing. Regardless, the issue isn’t going away.

Several environmental groups filed a petition in September with the DNR that would require nontoxic ammunition and fishing tackle on all lands in the state, not just public lands.

I won’t wade into that broader argument here.

But getting rid of lead shot on public lands in the state’s farmland zone would at least stop the flow of lead shot there, and be a step toward improving the image of hunters as conservation leaders.

An 11-member citizens advisory committee on nontoxic shot in 2006, which included members of conservation groups and an ammunition company, was unable to reach consensus on specific lead shot restrictions.

But the committee did say that it was “inevitable that lead shot will have to be restricted for all shotgun hunting at some future time.”

The time to move in that direction collectively is long overdue.

Doug Smith is a retired Star Tribune outdoors writer.