The open water channels around Sucker Lake in northern Ramsey County make it a popular winter spot for dozens of majestic trumpeter swans and other waterfowl.

It's also a popular public drive-up fishing spot, which is proving a fatal combination as birds consume lost lead fishing tackle.

Scientists — including one who has recovered 17 dead swans near Sucker and Vadnais lakes in Vadnais Heights — are joining Minnesota lawmakers in a call to ban lead in fishing tackle to protect swans, loons, eagles and other wildlife. Though similar efforts have stalled over the years amid opposition from anglers and hunters, advocates say they're hopeful this time will be different.

"We hear a lot from residents worried about the swans. They are a charismatic species and people see them," said Dawn Tanner, a conservation biologist and program development coordinator with the Vadnais Lake Area Water Management Organization. "A legislative change is probably the push that is needed."

Two Maplewood DFLers, Sen. Charles Wiger and Rep. Peter Fischer, introduced bills in January to ban the sale and use of lead fishing jigs and sinkers.

Wiger said he's feeling hopeful after Minnesota became the first state in the nation last year to prohibit most industrial uses of trichloroethylene (TCE), which can increase the risk of cancer and other serious health issues.

An overwhelming majority of lawmakers supported that ban after White Bear Township-based Water Gremlin agreed to pay $7 million in fines and fees after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) determined the plant had released an excess amount of TCE into the air.

Wiger said his constituents are now pushing for more environmental justice measures.

"My district is very concerned about the environmental impact of toxic chemicals," said Wiger, whose neighboring district was impacted by nearby Water Gremlin. "We need to listen to the next generation."

Others, including the nonprofit Friends of Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas, are also aiming to ban lead in hunting ammunition. Board Chairman Tom Casey said people would be shocked to know the amount of lead left in wilderness areas that belong to the public.

While legislators push for policy changes, the MPCA has launched a "Get The Lead Out" campaign that asks Minnesotans to voluntarily give up lead fishing tackle.

As part of the three-year campaign, they are passing out lead-free fishing tackle in schools, as prizes at fishing tournaments and at a handful of government waste collection sites.

"We are working really hard to get lead-free fishing tackle in the hands of anglers, especially youth. We are really hoping we can encourage people to make the switch during ice fishing season," said Kelly Amoth, a program director with the Get the Lead Out campaign.

The MPCA has compiled a list of companies that sell lead-free fishing tackle to push back on a misconception that it is expensive or difficult to find.

Kevin McDonald, an MPCA supervisor, said the public already understands the dangers of lead. That's why it's been removed from paint, gasoline and drinking water supplies. Now it's just getting the word out, persuading veteran anglers to switch to lead-free jigs and sinkers and teaching a new generation of anglers to go lead-free from the start, he said.

"People want to do the right thing," McDonald said. "We have a really great opportunity to get them started on the right foot and to really embrace a stewardship ethic that encourages them to go lead-free from the beginning."

The "Get the Lead Out" campaign will be funded with a $1.3 million portion of the settlement from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which harmed Minnesota's migrating loon population. That population is now estimated at 12,000, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

According to one estimate, as many as 25% of loon deaths nationally are caused by lead poisoning, Amoth said. While finding a large dead swan in a popular suburban park is sad and memorable, it's just a small example of the death toll.

"This is a preventable mortality factor here," McDonald said.

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037