State lawmakers are looking at banning lead fishing tackle, targeting the most common sinkers and jigs on the market.

The small bits of lead, which have been building up on lake bottoms for decades, are poisoning and killing trumpeter swans, loons, bald eagles and other wildlife.

Swans and loons are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning from tackle, diving to the bottoms of lakes to scoop up small slip shots and other sinkers as if they were gravel to grind up and help digest their food.

"If they accidentally swallow even one lead slip shot or jig, they die," said Carrol Henderson, who headed the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource's Nongame Wildlife Program for more than 40 years until his retirement in 2018.

A lead ban is long overdue, he said.

Rep. Peter Fischer, DFL-Maplewood, introduced the proposed ban this week to a House environmental committee. It would prohibit the production and manufacture of small lead jigs and sinkers in Minnesota by July 2024, and outlaw the use of any lead tackle that weighs an ounce or less by anglers starting in 2025.

"We need to do something now, because it takes so long before lead works its way out of the environment," Fischer said.

The House committee did not vote on the ban but agreed to bring it back for consideration after clarifying potential penalties for violators as well as technical language, such as exactly what type of hooks, jigs or weights would be outlawed.

There are also questions as to how a lead ban would be enforced. The small sinkers can be found in nearly every tackle box and boat in Minnesota, said Rep. Spencer Igo, R-Grand Rapids.

Lead tackle is cheaper than most alternatives, although some options such as tin can be as cheap as lead if they can be found in stores.

"My big concern is the cost," Igo said. "A half-ounce of lead costs 30 cents, versus $2.60 for tungsten. That's a big deal for guides and outfitters and people who can't afford it."

Dead swans on Sucker Lake

The DNR and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency have conducted educational campaigns for years to show anglers the harm of lead tackle and convince them to instead use tin, tungsten or steel. But those campaigns haven't made much of a dent in lead usage.

It's unclear exactly how many birds die from lead tackle each year. Populations of common loons, trumpeter swans and bald eagles are all healthy in Minnesota. Swans and bald eagles, once all but wiped out in the state, now number in the tens of thousands after extensive reintroduction efforts.

Though lead doesn't pose a population-level threat to the birds, it accumulates on water bottoms and in animals as it works its way up the food chain, Henderson said. Dozens of dead loons are brought to the DNR each year, with lead poisoning being one of the most common causes of death, he said.

"We shouldn't treat our lakes as dumping grounds," Henderson said.

The ban proposal comes as a number of trumpeter swans have been found dead of lead poisoning on Sucker Lake in Vadnais Heights for the third straight year. The area's water management organization has found more than 20 swans dead of suspected poisoning since 2019.

Of those birds, 10 bodies were in good enough condition to be sent to the University of Minnesota for testing. It was found that all 10 had died of lead poisoning, said Dawn Tanner, program development coordinator for the Vadnais Lake Area Water Management Organization.

Girl Scout Troop 56087 first raised the issue of Sucker Lake's dying swans to Fischer. Girl Scout Addy Shimek, who has fished on the lake, told lawmakers this week that most anglers don't think of the damage that lead causes to wildlife or aren't aware of it.

"Finding out I may have been responsible for some of this damage, or further caused it, really upset me," she said.

Greg Stanley • 612-673-4882