Making the move to non toxic ammo the right one, but not always easy

Nov. 18—WILLMAR — As a volunteer, Terri Dinesen makes plenty of trips throughout the year to deliver injured and ill raptors discovered in western Minnesota to the Raptor Center in hopes they can be saved.

The calls and reports she receives about emaciated raptors increase come November and the deer firearm season.

"Quite noticeably," said Dinesen, a parks supervisor for Lac qui Parle and Big Stone State Parks with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Everything from avian influenza and West Nile disease to collisions with power lines take a toll on eagles and other birds, but she knows from her experience that lead poisoning from scavenging on the gut piles left by deer hunters is a significant factor as well.

"Eagles clean up gut piles. They are scavengers," she said.

Concern about the impact on wildlife, and a growing body of research showing how lead ammunition can spread into the venison of the deer we harvest, led this writer and his deer firearm hunting party to make the switch this season to non toxic ammunition.

Non-toxic copper sabots proved to be every bit as accurate and effective as the lead slugs this writer has fed to a Model 1100 Remington 12 gauge for too many years to reveal here.

Getting to the point where all hunters are using alternative, non toxic ammunition is something the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is really interested in as well, according to Bob Meier, assistant commissioner with the DNR in St. Paul. "How do you get people there, right? It is going to take a while, working with the supply chain and all the other things," he said.

The lack of availability of non toxic ammunition is the biggest challenge by all measures. This writer discovered as much when our party's hunt for non toxic ammunition started in August. If it weren't for the early start, it's doubtful we could have acquired the ammunition we needed to practice in advance of the season.

The DNR had imposed a rule this year requiring hunters participating in special hunts in state parks and Scientific and Natural Areas to use non toxic ammunition. The DNR had to lift the rule due to the challenges hunters reported in finding ammunition.

Meier said the issue came to light as organizers of a special youth hunt offered at Kilen Woods contacted the agency. They were just unable to find any non toxic ammunition for the 20 gauge, smooth bore shotguns the youth used.

The special hunts offered in state parks are held to help manage the deer herds. The non toxic requirement would have likely kept many hunters from participating.

The rule for the special hunts came in response to a petition by the Friends for Scientific and Natural Areas. It urged the DNR to use its rule making authority to require non toxic ammunition and fishing tackle.

Meier said state law giving the DNR authority to protect wildlife provides the rule making authority to require non toxic ammunition.

The DNR had proposed requiring non toxic ammunition on state Wildlife Management Areas in the state's shotgun zone under former Commissioner Tom Landwehr. The DNR looked at allowing a three-year time frame before the rule was in place, but the same issue surfaced. It was not so much that people balked against the rule. "It was the availability that was the big thing," said Meier.

Going forward, Meier said the department will be talking with manufacturers to see what can be done to improve availability. The department will also be working to promote education and awareness by hunters so that more voluntarily make the switch, and help create the market demand needed to encourage more manufacturing of non toxic ammunition.

The DNR does not plan to bring a proposal to the legislature for non toxic ammunition. It does hope to engage legislators in discussions on how we can move in that direction, he said.

The use of lead was banned by the federal government for waterfowl hunting in 1987 and steel and other non toxic replacements have been the norm ever since.

Meier is optimistic that firearm deer hunters will come around to the use of non toxic bullets and shotgun slugs no differently.

Hunters today are more active and concerned about what their impacts might be, he explained. Rank and file members of the state's hunting organizations are stepping forward about protecting hunting rights and our natural resources. "People just want to do the right thing," he said.

Dinesen said it can be hard to know whether it's a natural disease or lead poisoning afflicting the birds she transports. The Raptor Center has the resources to determine the cause, and will usually inform her of the outcome.

She noted that one of the reasons for the increase in her trips to the Raptor Center in the autumn is thanks to hunters. They are out and about in the fields and woods, and they are usually quick to report the ill or injured birds they encounter.