Minnesota to pitch anglers on going lead-free for loons

A loon floats just above the water.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is planning to launch a new program focused on encouraging anglers to voluntarily switch to lead-free fishing tackle as a way to help save the common loon.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

This summer, Minnesota’s beloved state bird will be at the center of a new public awareness campaign aimed at anglers and their fishing tackle — and created in the aftermath of a devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is planning to launch the new program, focused on encouraging anglers to voluntarily switch to lead-free fishing tackle as a way to help save the common loon. Lead poisoning is a leading cause of death for Minnesota loons.

The program will be funded by the federal government’s settlement with BP over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded Minnesota agencies more than $6 million from the BP settlement to help support its loon population. About $1.2 million of that settlement money will be designated over the next three years for the MPCA program, which the agency is calling “Get the Lead Out.”

But a state legislator has delayed approval of the funding — at least temporarily.

State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chair of the Minnesota Senate’s Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee, requested his committee hold a hearing on the program after the legislative session starts on Tuesday.

Ingebrigtsen said he expects the funding to be approved early in the session.

Impact on Minnesota loons

The Deepwater Horizon disaster dumped nearly 5 million barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, where many of Minnesota’s loons spend their winters.

Carrol Henderson, who retired in 2018 after a long career heading the nongame wildlife program at the state Department of Natural Resources, led a seven-year study to determine whether Minnesota's loons had been affected by the oil spill.

Researchers used radio implants and geolocators to track loons' movements and how deeply they dove into the water in search of food. They found traces of oil and the chemicals used to disperse the spill in the birds' feathers, eggs and blood.

"They were bringing them back to Minnesota and they were actually passing these contaminants on in the eggs that they laid,” Henderson said.

Henderson helped put together a plan to use BP settlement dollars to help the loons. Most of the more than $6 million Minnesota was awarded was reserved for the DNR’s efforts at protecting and restoring loon habitat, including conservation easements and nesting platforms.

Urging anglers to ditch lead

About $1.2 million of the settlement money was designated to address a common cause of loon mortality: lead poisoning. Loons are especially susceptible to lead poisoning because they swallow pebbles at the bottom of a lake to help them grind up their food.

"When they accidentally pick up a lead jig or sinker off the bottom, all it takes is one split shot or one jig to kill the loon from lead poisoning,” Henderson said.

Lead is toxic for loons and other waterfowl. The MPCA estimates that lead poisoning causes about 14 percent of Minnesota loon deaths.

"It's something that's totally avoidable if people simply learn to shop for nontoxic jigs and sinkers,” Henderson said.

Lead-free alternatives made from materials like tin, steel, bismuth or tungsten sometimes can be hard to find in sporting goods stores, Henderson said. He said consumers can help change that.

"This is a growing portion of the retail market for angling,” he said. “But it needs a little bit of a push to get people to ask for it. Otherwise, the market doesn't grow."

Some states, including New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Massachusetts, have total or partial bans on the use of lead sinkers and jigs. Minnesota’s lead-free campaign is voluntary. To date, efforts to prohibit lead tackle and ammunition in the state have been unsuccessful.

Funding delay

The MPCA received notice in November from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that it had been awarded the $1.27 million for the lead program.

But the MPCA didn’t get immediate approval from the state’s Legislative Advisory Commission, which would allow the agency to begin spending the money on Jan. 1. The commission has authority to review and grant requests by state agencies to spend federal funds.

The approval was delayed after Ingebrigtsen requested to hold a committee hearing first. He said he’s not opposed to the MPCA’s Get the Lead Out program, but wanted his committee to hear details about how the money will be spent.

"From that point on, I think the money will come,” he said. “We just needed to know exactly how it's going to be spent."

Ingebrigtsen said he also wants more information about the involvement of the planned National Loon Center in the MPCA’s program. The center, which is set to be located in Crosslake, Minn., north of Brainerd, hasn’t been built yet, but the MPCA is working with its parent organization to place outdoor educational kiosks about lead poisoning at the future site.

Minnesota is home to about 12,000 loons.
Minnesota is home to about 12,000 loons, more than any other states except Alaska. The common loon is Minnesota's state bird.
Jiwon Choi | MPR News

Henderson worries that any delay could put the federal money at risk.

"We can reduce the amount of lead that we're putting into our lakes,” he said. “There's no good logical reason that I can see why we need to be holding back on this thing."

Kate Healy, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Gulf Restoration Office in Alabama, is overseeing projects that received funding from the BP settlement. She said Minnesota’s delay in approving the federal funds is unusual, but at this point, she’s not concerned.

In the meantime, the MPCA is moving forward with plans to launch the program. The agency has already posted a website that lists more than three dozen companies where anglers can find lead-free fishing tackle that won't harm loons.