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Could environmental bill be swan song for lead sinkers in some Minnesota lakes?

Trumpeter swans are the protagonists in one of the most remarkable comeback stories of the animal world, going from fewer than 100 in the country in the 1930s to approximately 23,000 in the state today.

According to Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul), sponsor of a Swan Protection Act, Carrol Henderson is the one person most responsible for that rebound in Minnesota.  

Henderson spoke to the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee Wednesday in support of the Hansen-sponsored HF2368 which would establish trumpeter swan and tundra swan protection areas where the use of lead sinkers would be prohibited. Swans can mistake the jigs and sinkers used while fishing for stones they swallow to digest their food.

Henderson first watched an eagle die of lead poisoning nearly 50 years ago and is dismayed the state is still dealing with the issue. He urged committee members to look at the big picture.

“We need to leave lead behind, and we need hunters and anglers to lead the charge,” Henderson said, noting nontoxic alternatives are available. Based on estimates in the National Survey of Hunting, Fishing and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, tungsten jigs and sinkers would add $40 to an angler’s annual expenditure on the sport.

Hansen said the bill, which as amended was laid over for possible omnibus bill inclusion, has incentives, education and consequences. The proposed legislation would:

  • make it a gross misdemeanor to harass, kill, buy, sell, possess or transport a native swan;
  • increase the restitution amounts for taking a swan from $200 to $1,000 for a tundra swan and from $1,000 to $2,500 for a trumpeter swan; and
  • appropriate $1.4 million from the General Fund to the Department of Natural Resources for swan protection education programs and $1 million from the General Fund for a lead tackle collection program.

While there are alternatives to lead sinkers, they are not widely available and anglers could have difficulties complying with provisions in the bill, wrote Robert Matthews, senior coordinator with the Great Lakes States Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. Additionally, conservation management decisions are generally made at a population level.

“There is no scientific evidence that indicates lead sinkers threaten fish and wildlife at the population level in Minnesota,” Matthews wrote.

Defining swan protection areas could be a challenge since the entire state could be considered part of the swan migration corridor, said Katie Smith director of the DNR’s Ecological and Water Resources Division.

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