Wisconsin Sportsmen Back Ban on Lead Sinkers
Written by Associated Press   
Wednesday, 21 April 2010 16:10
A sportsmen's vote to eliminate most lead fishing tackle in Wisconsin has won praise from environmentalists across the nation, but faces an uncertain future.

On Monday, participants at the Department of Natural Resources statewide spring fish and game hearings approved phasing out lead fishing tackle less than one inch in length and one ounce in weight. The decision came on a 1,980 to 1,818 vote.

"I think it's fantastic," said Dr. Mark Pokras, a veterinarian with the Wildlife Clinic and Center for Conservation Medicine at Tufts University in Massachusetts. "What a great step for Wisconsin."

The question, which was included in the Conservation Congress portion of the hearing, won in Langlade County, 30-14, but was rejected in the majority of the state's 72 counties. Thirty-three counties were in favor, 37 opposed, and two were tied. Oneida County rejected the ban, 55-56.

That outcome makes it uncertain whether the proposal will be forwarded to the State Natural Resources Board, the next step before any ban would be put into place. The full body of the Conservation Congress may choose to uphold, table, or reject the public opinion when it meets in May.

"The people of Wisconsin have spoken fairly clearly," said Stacy Craig, environmental education coordinator for LoonWatch at Northland College in Ashland. "They are concerned about this issue and it should be forwarded to the Natural Resources Board. The time has come, the people have spoken."

Roger Sabota, who represents Lincoln, Marathon, Oneida, Taylor and Vilas counties on the Conservation Congress Executive Council, said the issue will stir a lively discussion.

"It's going to be a controversial thing for a while," he said. "I can't really predict how it will turn out."

The Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of lead in paint and other products in the mid-1970s due to its documented detrimental effects on people, especially young children.

Wildlife officials say those harmful effects are only compounded in waterfowl such as bald eagles, loons and swans.

"It's amazing to me that lead has been phased out of every other aspect of our lives and recognized as a deadly toxin, but we as a society continue to expose hunters and fishermen and their families to it," Marge Gibson, who operates Antigo's Raptor Education Group Inc., a wildlife rehabilitation facility, said. "A piece of lead the size of a grain of sand can poison a child."

In Massachusetts, Pokras said he sees two to three cases a week of lead poisoning in waterfowl.

"The number one cause of mortality in loons is lead poisoning," he said. "One split-shot will kill a loon."

The loons ingest the lead through the fish they consume by picking up sinkers on the lake bottom. Once inside the bird's intestine, the lead quickly does fatal damage to the bird's neurological and digestive system.

"The toxicity of lead is well-known," Pokras said. "It's just too dangerous to be putting into the environment."

In her practice, Gibson deals with all types of birds, and many come in suffering from the effects of lead. In 2009, she treated 20 trumpeter swans, 15 bald eagles and five loons, all with lead poisoning.

"Virtually every loon we have admitted during the past 18 years has had lead poisoning," Gibson said. "By the time we get them, they have it for a few weeks. Everything is starting to go the way of death."

Gibson treats the birds with calcium versenate, a compound that in some cases is successful in flushing the toxins from the body. Many more die.

The problem is not limited to Wisconsin or Massachusetts. In 2009, the University of Minnesota Raptor Center admitted 110 bald eagles with lead poisoning. Thirty-four died.

New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Vermont and Massachusetts have all banned the use or sale of lead tackle. At the federal level, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has barred the tackle from many national wildlife areas and it will also be eliminated in all national parks by the end of 2010.

Anglers in Canadian national parks and national wildlife areas all must use alternatives to lead tackle.

But resistance in many states, including Wisconsin, remains.

One factor that concerns anglers is the cost, Sabota said. Non-lead alternatives are more expensive than the traditional material. Replacing tackle boxes full of lead-based jigs will bring economic consequences.

"Personally, if we can save some eagles and loons and other waterfowl, it's worth putting away my lead jigs," said Sabota, suggesting that as more and more states enact a ban, the costs of non-lead-based tackle will also come down.

Supporters of the ban say the effects of lead are well-known and now is the time to move forward.

"This is all so sad," Gibson said. "I wish people could spend just one day with me, seeing these birds."

She pulls up a picture on her computer showing two, apparently healthy, trumpeter swans -- a pair that mated for life.

"They lived together, they ate together and they ingested lead together," Gibson said. "So they died together."
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