Sixteen dead swans have been found near Sucker and Vadnais lakes in northern Ramsey County over the past two years, poisoned most likely by lead sinkers used by anglers at the popular lakes.

The elegant white birds, reintroduced to Minnesota only three decades ago, flock to the open channels flowing into the Vadnais Heights lakes in winter. But it's also a wildly popular drive-up fishing spot in summer — and the swans, along with other birds including loons, mistake the sinkers for small stones they typically consume to help digestion in their gizzards.

Necropsies performed by the University of Minnesota have determined lead poisoning as the cause of death in several of the birds, said Dawn Tanner, a conservation biologist and program development coordinator with the Vadnais Lake Area Water Management Organization.

Now the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, with the help of the Department of Natural Resource's nongame wildlife program, is set to launch a statewide public awareness campaign, "Get the Lead Out," to persuade anglers to switch to nonlead tackle and sinkers to protect waterfowl.

Given the COVID-19 state shutdown, legislation to phase out lead fishing sinkers and tackle is on the back burner. But experts and volunteers hope that public education campaigns can spread the word and persuade anglers to use nontoxic tackle at Sucker Lake and other fishing spots statewide this spring.

"Everybody has a choice. Just make the switch," implored Margaret Smith, executive director of the Trumpeter Swan Society, a Minnesota nonprofit that does work across North America.

Smith said lead poisoning is a major killer of swans across the country, and many anglers don't know that every time they cut a snarled fishing line, they're leaving a little poison behind.

A multitude of studies in Minnesota over the years has determined that anglers leave millions of bits of lead in lakes, ponds and streams that, added up, can be measured in tons.

The protection of waterfowl and birds is the same as protecting the entire outdoor experience that so many Minnesotans cherish, Smith said.

"It's being out there and listening to the birdsong and the wind in the trees and watching the ripples on the lake. It's the whole experience. That's what we are trying to protect," she said. "I don't want my recreational choices to endanger wildlife."

Debbie Hartmann, an avid nature photographer, discovered some of the first dead swans at Sucker Lake in February 2019 and found more this past winter. The most recent remains were discovered in late March.

Hartmann notified Tanner, who has taken in some of the swan remains for analysis. She supports the public awareness campaign but thinks it will take a law change to move the needle.

"Not a lot of people are doing it on their own," Hartmann said.

"I've been coming here a lot of years and I've never seen this before," said Hartmann, recalling the first dead bird she found. "You could tell the swan had not died a pretty death."

Birds poisoned by lead can't lift their wings, so they scoot across the ice shivering. They often starve because they can't properly digest their food, according to the Swan Society.

Like many species, swans were hunted to near extinction in the continental United States for their meat and plumage. By the 1930s, fewer than 100 survived in Montana near the Yellowstone region, according to the Swan Society.

In the 1960s, the Hennepin County Park Reserve, now the Three Rivers Park District, relocated some of those Montana swans to Minnesota and later created the Trumpeter Swan Society. That relocation was largely unsuccessful, so in the late 1980s Carrol Henderson, then nongame wildlife program supervisor with the DNR, brought suitcases full of swan eggs back from Alaska.

The eggs were hatched and the birds released in the early 1990s. The Minnesota swan population is now estimated to be near 30,000, according to a DNR spokeswoman.

Henderson, now retired from the DNR but a member of the Swan Society board, said he's amazed at the swan population's growth. He hopes anglers will give up their lead tackle to protect the birds and other wildlife.

"We've been tracking closely the recurring swan deaths at Sucker Lake. Sadly, it's not a huge surprise when you have lead loss in the environment," said Kevin McDonald, an MPCA supervisor.

The agency's "Get the Lead Out" campaign will be funded with a $500,000-plus 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 DNR.

Upcoming events include tackle exchanges and working with fishing groups, particularly young anglers.

McDonald said there are more environmentally friendly, albeit pricier, sinker options made of other metals.

"In recent years, there's been a growing level of awareness. People have known for a long time that lead is bad," he said. "We've taken it out of gasoline. It's no longer allowed in paint. We are concerned about it on windowsills and plumbing fixtures. As a society we've gone to great lengths to prohibit and remove lead from those types of settings."

McDonald said that while a small cohort of anglers oppose change, he believes the vast majority of Minnesotans are willing to swap out their lead sinkers.

"There are a great many Minnesotans imminently willing to make this transition to lead-free fishing tackle," he said.

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037