A powerful coalition of gun rights activists, hunting groups and business interests has lined up against a proposal by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to prohibit upland bird hunters from using lead ammunition on state hunting lands.

The wildlife-friendly initiative enjoys the support of its own legion of heavyweights in the conservation world and it hasn’t been derailed.

But at an emotionally charged public forum Thursday night in St. Paul, the DNR backed away from its plan to keep the issue in-house. Instead, the rising debate could be destined for a bigger stage at the Legislature.

“We’ll see if the Legislature takes this up or not before we decide to pursue a rule,” DNR Wildlife Section Chief Paul Telander told the forum crowd in a surprise announcement.

On one side is the National Rifle Association, Anoka-based Federal Premium Ammunition, the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, Pheasants Forever, the National Wildlife Turkey Federation, Hunting Works for Minnesota, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and a collection of state chambers of commerce.

They’ve assailed the DNR’s limited proposal to ban lead shot as a feel-good, unscientific notion laced with creeping anti-gun and anti-hunter agendas. Economically, they argue, a switch to non-toxic steel shot also could discourage hunting and hunting tourism.

“This isn’t about science,” said Jake McGuigan, director of government affairs at the National Shooting Sports Foundation. “This is about hunting and stopping hunting.”

An opposing message is being voiced by officials from the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center, The Audubon Society, the Izaak Walton League, the Center for Biological Diversity, certain staff members at the DNR and conservation-minded hunters of many stripes, including those who fear health detriments from eating lead-tainted wild game.

They admit there’s no scientific proof that lead ammunition is harming overall populations of wildlife in Minnesota, but scoff at suggestions that there’s a hidden agenda to undermine Second Amendment gun rights. Switching to non-toxic, steel shot, they say, is an affordable, common-sense way to mitigate a steady flow of lead-poisoning cases involving individual eagles, swans, dabbling ducks, doves, pheasants and many other wildlife species.

“Everyone wants to frame this as anti-hunting and it’s not,” said Julie Ponder, executive director of The Raptor Center. “It’s just about making the right decisions for our natural world.”

Carrol Henderson, a hunter himself and the DNR’s longtime specialist on non-game species, blasted those who embrace “an imaginary right to use lead ammunition.” They’re spoiling the image of hunters by only caring about the game they shoot and ignoring the suffering of non-target species who ingest spent pellets and fragments, he said.

“If they continue to use lead, knowing of its toxic effects on wildlife, they are not conservationists,” he said during Thursday night’s public comments.

But Rick Horton, a biologist for the Minnesota chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, said hunters who believe the DNR’s proposal is unscientific shouldn’t be indicted as uncaring. Besides lacking any evidence that overall wildlife populations are hurting, the DNR’s proposal is overly broad because it applies to a lot of lead shot that simply lands on the prairie, away from marshes, wetlands and lakes where waterfowl could ingest it. Most lead poisoning in eagles is believed to come from eating the gut piles or carcasses of big game killed by lead ammunition.

“Sorry, without that science, this rule should not pass,” Horton said.

Phil Jenni, the executive director of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota in Roseville, isn’t involved in the debate, but agrees with part of what both sides are saying.

He said he’s not aware of any science to support overall population deficits caused by lead hunting ammunition. But he is often a witness to lead poisoning in swans and other animals who are taken to his clinic after ingesting fishing tackle or hunting ammunition.

“No one can claim that lead doesn’t cause animals to die,” Jenni said. “We see it viscerally.”

McGuigan’s trade association, which he said works closely with the NRA in most cases, represents Federal Premium, Smith & Wesson and other companies in the firearms industry.

McGuigan likened the situation in Minnesota to California, where the Shooting Sports Foundation was at the forefront of a similar fight.

In 2008, California’s Fish and Game Commission banned the use of lead ammo in the state’s condor range to protect those birds from eating pellets and fragments. Five years later, the California Legislature extended the ban statewide.

McGuigan and other see the same “camel’s nose inside the tent” approach in Minnesota.

The current proposal against lead shot only applies to the hunting of upland birds and small game on 31 percent of the state’s Wildlife Management Areas. Private lands are excluded, some state land is excluded and deer hunting wouldn’t be affected.

But McGuigan and Rob Doar, political director for the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, said it appears to be a mere stepping stone to a statewide ban.

Despite the current rift, there are some leaders in the conservation community who believe the two sides could ultimately work together toward a solution.

Matthew Anderson, executive director of Audubon Minnesota, said the type of limited ban proposed in Minnesota already has been adopted in North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa.

“If we can work together … it’s possible we can do something good for birds, habitat and human health,” Anderson said. “You rarely get those triple bottom lines and that would be fantastic.’’

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213