Our state bird, the common loon, has an uncommon problem.
Every now and again, a loon will dive down to lake beds, scoop up something roughly the size of a pea, and swallow it. If it's a pebble, it's great for the loon’s digestion. It becomes a problem when the bird mistakenly swallows a lead sinker instead.
Anglers like to use sinkers to weigh down their lines and catch deep-water fish—your walleye and whatnot. But when these little balls of metal slip off the line and get lost, they routinely end up in the bellies of loons, diving ducks, and swans.
What follows is agony, starting with confusion and trembling, and ending in emaciation and death within a few weeks. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates this is what’s been killing 14 percent of the state’s loons
The state has a plan to help stop it. An application the MPCA filed in September would tap $1.27 million in settlement money from the BP oil spill settlement toward protecting the loon population.
As of January 1, that money could be used for an awareness campaign asking fishers to ditch the lead and use nontoxic sinkers.
But we don’t have that money yet, because Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria) doesn’t want us to. The Senate Finance Committee chairman has effectively blocked the grant until he can hold a committee hearing on the subject after the session starts.
Rep. Rick Hansen (D-South St. Paul) calls Ingebrigtsen's move "stunning," but says this is a "consistent pattern" with Minnesota Republicans regarding lead.
"Efforts to study, reasearch, educate, or change behavior regarding outdoor use of lead are opposed," Hansen says.
Back in 2015 and 2016, the Department of Natural Resources suggested banning lead birdshot on state-owned hunting land in half the state, and the National Rifle Association and various hunting groups came down as heavily against the idea as… well, lead. (The NRA’s website paints the conservation effort as an “attack” by anti-hunting groups whose “ultimate goal” is to ban hunting altogether.)
The $1.27 million in question is only a fraction of the $6 million Minnesota got from the BP oil spill settlement, and most of the rest has been accepted without question or complaint and spent on preservation.
Ingebrigtsen didn’t respond to interview requests, but he told the Star Tribune his stance had nothing to do with lead, and that he wants to ask the MPCA if they might use the grant to hire more full-time people.
“I wanted to hold their feet to the fire,” he explained. He told MPR that he wasn’t opposed to the campaign against lead sinkers, he just wanted to hear “exactly” how the money would be spent. Ingebrgitsen also said he expected funding to be approved early in the session.
Hansen doesn't necessarily buy that. This could have been resolved "months ago," he says. He's currently getting a bill drafted to let the agency spend the money, and he says he and colleagues will put it forward "as soon as [they] can."
Unless Bill has a change of heart.
"I would ask [Senator Ingebrigtsen] to release the funds and save some loons," he says.
For more issues Ingebrigtsen has championed over the course of his legislative career, check out this 2011 bill to make English Minnesota’s official language, that time in 2014 when he bravely stood up against legalizing medical marijuana, and the one in 2017 when he tried to eliminate the Environmental Quality Board.