Dennis Anderson
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The public's hue and cry these days suggests the most important issue facing Minnesota is who will coach the Vikings next year, the current boss or a new boss.

Meanwhile, largely without concern or comment, bald eagles keep beating what by now is a well-worn path to the Twin Cities, arriving not by the majesty of their nearly 8-foot wingspans, but by vehicle — their bodies sickened by lead poisoning after eating one or more of the 180,000-odd deer gut piles left in the field last fall by Minnesota hunters.

Minnesota conservationists, including many hunters, have long pleaded that nontoxic — meaning, essentially, anything but lead — ammunition should be required for hunting on state wildlife management areas and other properties overseen by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Already, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires hunters to use nontoxic shot on federal waterfowl production areas and national wildlife refuges in Minnesota. Three Rivers Park District similarly restricts lead for hunting on their lands in the metro.

Steve Turnbull of the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center said a lead fragment no larger than a grain of rice can kill an adult bald eagle. Such was the case last month when an adult male bald eagle was brought to The Raptor Center from Cass County. The eagle, which was euthanized, was unable to feed itself and had a blood lead level of 4 parts per million, more than four times a lethal dose.

A ban on lead sinkers and other fishing tackle also is long overdue in Minnesota, where the state bird, the loon, as well as swans, too often ingest anglers' lost gear, dooming some of these birds to suffering and in many cases death.

The discarded gut pile threat to eagles and other wildlife arises when lead bullets fragment when striking deer. A 2008 Minnesota DNR study determined that lead particles commonly scatter far beyond wound channels, and often are too small to see, feel or sense by people eating venison.

Both sides of the lead issues have put forth legislation in Minnesota.
Both sides of the lead issues have put forth legislation in Minnesota.

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A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North Dakota Department of Health also in 2008 found that people who ate a lot of wild game shot with lead had higher blood lead levels than people who ate little or no game.

For this reason and others, Friends of Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas, among other Minnesota groups, recently filed a petition with the DNR requesting that the agency require nontoxic shot, slugs and fishing tackle on the state's 71 scientific and natural areas (SNAs) that allow hunting, as well as state parks that offer fishing and hunting.

The petition was rejected. But in a significant shift, the DNR said for the first time that during hunts on some SNAs and certain state parks it will require the use of nontoxic shot and slugs, beginning this fall.

"In filling the petition, we wanted to ensure that management of our 170 scientific and natural areas is consistent with the law that established them, that they are to be left in their undisturbed natural states,'' said Tom Casey, a lawyer and chair of the SNA friends group. "It has been scientifically determined for years that there are no safe levels of lead, and depositing lead on SNAs and in our state parks shouldn't be allowed.''

DNR Ecological and Water Resources Division deputy director Ann Pierce said the SNA group's petition was rejected in part because the DNR lacks authority to grant its wide-ranging requests.

"Not all SNAs and state parks were established the same way,'' Pierce said, "and in some cases only the Legislature can make management changes on these properties. Also, while there are no lakes in any of our SNAs, there are, of course, lakes in some state parks. But because those are public waters, different state statutes and processes govern their use and require legislative action.''

Said Casey, "It's the first time the DNR has acted to protect state lands in these situations.''

For better and mostly worse, the Minnesota Legislature has been part of the lead ammunition debate dating at least to 1991, when, under the administration of President George H.W. Bush — himself a hunter — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned lead shot nationwide for waterfowl hunting. At first, some waterfowlers objected because steel and other nontoxic shells were more expensive than lead and because some early nontoxic shotshells performed poorly. Both issues have largely gone away.

In 2008 and again in 2016, the DNR supported legislative efforts to ban lead shot on some state lands, including select wildlife management areas. The ammunition industry and the National Rifle Association (NRA), and some sporting groups, opposed the changes, saying no evidence exists that lead ammunition has "population level'' effects on wildlife.

The upshot is that it's embarrassing that Minnesota still allows hunters on state WMAs — at least those in the farm zone — to use lead. Even South Dakota requires nontoxic shot on its state lands.

Also, the argument that copper bullets, as one example, are in any way inferior to lead bullets for accuracy or killing power has long since been disproven.

So unless for some reason deer hunters want to feed lead-laced venison to their families, or if for some other reason they have something against eagles and other carrion-eaters, there's no reason not to go lead-free.

The ammunition and fishing-tackle industries do make valid points about costs, material availability and other considerations that might accompany large-scale moves away from lead. These could be addressed in Minnesota by an agreed upon transition period of from four to seven years.

The welfare of people as well as wildlife is at stake, which is important.

Maybe not as important as who will coach the Vikings.

But, you know, important.