BY MICHAEL FURTMAN
Anyone who hunts in the southern and western parts of Minnesota knows there are two types of public land ownership — those acquired by the Duck Stamp and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as waterfowl production areas, and those purchased by similar state stamps or other Minnesota funding that are managed as state wildlife management areas by the Department of Natural Resources.
These parcels are virtually identical except for signage, and when adjacent to each other, the land complex is sometimes managed as a whole by the two partner organizations. But there’s one big difference. On federal waterfowl protection areas, hunters must use nontoxic shot for hunting any upland species. To comply with federal law which requires the use of nontoxic shot for waterfowl, they use it when duck hunting on wildlife management areas as well. But if you were shooting a pheasant on these lands managed by the Department of Natural Resources, you can shoot lead.
Right now, if your target is a mallard, you must use steel. If it is a rooster pheasant, you can shoot lead. What sense does that make, considering you’re standing in practically the same spot, spewing shot out over the same marsh?
While it’s a given waterfowl production areas have wetlands for waterfowl production, almost every wildlife management area also contains wetlands, and waterfowl production and hunting are two major uses. In much of what the Department of Natural Resources classifies as the “farmland zone,” these wildlife management areas also provide critical habitat for pheasants and sharp-tailed grouse.
So it made sense to everyone managing these lands that given the toxicity of lead to waterfowl and other birds, the use of nontoxic shot should be required for all small game on wildlife management areas. By far the largest number of upland hunters using these lands are those chasing pheasants. Since the best pheasant cover is near wetlands, the majority of those birds are bagged nearby.
Wishing to avoid more lead in the few remaining wetlands in the state’s prairie region, the Department of Natural Resources announced its proposal in October 2015 to require nontoxic shot for upland hunting on these particular wildlife management areas near wetlands. It would not be applied to bullets or slugs or big game hunting.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation and Safari Club International organized their constituents to oppose this proposal. They also sent official letters to the department during the comment period.
Ryan Burt, president of the Minnesota chapter of the Safari Club wrote to the Department of Natural Resources, “… it is disturbing that the DNR is attempting to accomplish through administrative rulemaking what radical anti-hunting groups have largely been unable to do through litigation or legislation — pricing hunters out of hunting.” Steel, he asserted, is far more expensive, and all one needs to do is go to a sporting goods store to see that Safari Club International is right.
But they aren’t right. Depending upon where and when you buy your shotshells, steel is often as cheap, or cheaper, than lead. Since shot weights and speeds are different in lead loads than steel, apple-to-apple comparisons are not easy. But a simple online search for loads suitable for pheasant hunting reveals that Rogers Sporting Goods sells a case of lead Federal Wing-Shok 12-gauge 2¾ shells for $129.99, and the similar steel Speed-Shok for $119.99. If you move up to 3-inch shells and into premium ammo designed specifically for pheasant hunting (Federal Prairie Storm), Cabela’s sells a case of steel for $199.99, with the lead version priced at $214.99. Clearly, nontoxic loads are not going to price anyone out of hunting.
Then there are the comments of Jake McGuigan of the National Shooting Sports Foundation to the Department of Natural Resources, who said, “This legislation seeks to use lead as a means to end hunting in Minnesota.”
Seriously? This would come as shocking news to the numerous pheasant hunters (myself among them) who using steel, love to prowl the federal waterfowl protection areas. Even more baffling was endless information about the California Condor, the lack of evidence of health risks to humans, how wildlife management should focus on species population health and not that of individuals. It was not much more than a “traditional ammo” form letter which could be sent to any agency or region considering restricting the use of lead shot, little of which had anything to do with the proposal in Minnesota.
Apparently the Safari Club and the National Shooting Sports Foundation still see bogeyman, anti-hunters under every bed. They act as if hunters were being asked to make a sacrifice akin to abandoning cars to travel by bike, when in fact the sacrifice — if any — is more like asking them to change brands of cars.
The proposal in Minnesota was simply to avoid the risk of soil and water contamination to ensure these remaining pockets of habitat stay healthy. The wildlife management areas proposed for the ban on lead shot frequently contain wetlands which are just as important to waterfowl production, staging and migration as their federal counterparts. The impacts on waterfowl by lead shot are well documented, and if these groups want to reopen that debate, they best be prepared for a serious ass-whooping. In a sea of soybeans and corn, these parcels are critical habitat not only to waterfowl and upland game birds, but every grassland passerine and wetland wading species native to the region. And lead is deadly to them all.
Just as the ban on lead did not end duck hunting — but did save millions of ducks — a limited ban on it for important wildlife lands in Minnesota won’t end upland hunting, but will save the lives of birds. ♦
— Circle of Chiefs articles are written by those who have received the Circle of Chiefs Award for conservation reporting and coverage. The Circle of Chiefs are considered OWAA’s conservation council. The article reflects the opinion of the author. If you’d like to add to the discussion, please send a letter to the editor.
— Michael Furtman joined OWAA in 1986. He received the Circle of Chiefs Award in 2001, and is the only writer to ever receive the highest conservation communicator awards from both Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited. A passionate pheasant hunter, he’s used only steel shot on roosters for over a decade.
BY MICHAEL FURTMAN