Editorial: The death of House Bill 1025 leaves concerns about eagles. And why has DNR stayed so quiet on regulated shooting areas?

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House Bill 1025, which aimed to ban the possession of carbofuran in Maryland, is dead, just like a lot of wildlife that has been killed by the toxic pesticide in Maryland.

Why is carbofuran still an issue?

Carbofuran was banned by the EPA in 2009. Since then, it’s killed at least 30 bald eagles and other wildlife on or in very close proximity to farms on the Eastern Shore – farms where food for humans and animals is produced.

  • 2009 – Cordova farm (2 eagles)
  • 2012 – Easton farm (2 eagles)
  • 2014 – Preston farm ( 1 eagle)
  • 2016 – Federalsburg farm (13 eagles)
  • 2017 – Easton farm (5 eagles)
  • 2019 – Chestertown farm (6 eagles + 1 great horned owl)
  • 2019 – Cordova farm (1 eagle)

According to retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Special Agent Frank Kuncir, who testified as an expert witness in the hearing for House Bill 1025, most of the carbofuran cases he investigated were about protecting captive-raised mallards on shooting preserves (now known as regulated shooting areas).

In other words, these ducks are meant to be shot by paying customers and not taken by wildlife, such as bald eagles.

Farms can be leased for use as a regulated shooting area (RSA) and farm owners don’t necessarily know what’s being used on their properties by those that lease them.

The 2019 eagle mass mortality case in Chestertown was on a property used as an RSA.

The first hearing for House Bill 1025 was on February 24.

Unfortunately, the connection between RSAs and these carbofuran mass poisoning incidents wasn’t mentioned in the bill, in the hearing and many didn’t know about such a connection.

The problems with the bill

The farm lobby was in opposition to the bill because of the potential for farmers to be charged and fined for something they might not be doing. This opposition by the farming lobby, in my opinion, was justified given the language of the bill and lack of information about why many of these carbofuran incidents have happened.

Del. Jen Terrasa, the bill’s sponsor, said during the hearing, the Maryland Grain Producers Association (MGPA) had contacted her with concerns about Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) going on farms to seize carbofuran.

According to Maryland Grain Producers website, “This bill makes it illegal to posses or store Carbofuran after January 1, 2024 and sets up penalties for violation. The bill gives the Natural Resources Police and Department of Agriculture the authority to seize Carbofaun (sp). MDA is also required to set up a take back program through the pesticide recycling program. *Carbofuran was de-registered by the EPA and all uses for feed and food crops were revoked in 2009. MGPA is investigating this bill further for potential impacts on grain farmers.”

Colby Ferguson, director of government and public relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, testified in opposition of the bill. Though Ferguson said he didn’t like carbofuran and didn’t want it around, he was concerned with the levying of fines and charges against innocent farmers, in addition to the Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) going on farms to seize carbofuran.

Where can people get rid of carbofuran if they still have it?

When asked in the hearing who Ferguson wanted to do enforcement on these cases, Ferguson said MDA is the regulatory agency and NRP shouldn’t be involved. But he said, MDA needs to step up with a way for farmers to get rid of old and banned pesticides.

“… The problem we have is they don’t offer these programs for farmers to get rid of these old products and honestly, that’s what we really need,” said Ferguson.

Terrasa tried to to explain that NRP would respond only if wildlife was involved.

There seemed to be a lack of understanding of the problem, as well as who should be responsible for it. Terrasa said she’d be happy to work with the Maryland Farm Bureau to get it right. At that point, House Bill 1025 was sent back to committee.

Twelve days later, on March 8, the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) announced the sudden comeback of their pesticide disposal program.

The timing of MDA’s pesticide disposal program seemed oddly coincidental, as was the graphic used by MDA that specifically stated, “old, unwanted, banned, or unusable pesticides.”

On March 20, 12 days after MDA announced the comeback of their pesticide disposal program, House Bill 1025 was killed.

I called Terrasa’s office to ask some questions.

Brooks Scoville, Terrasa’s legislative assistant, answered the phone. I told her who I was and she immediately said, “the good news is the Maryland Department of Agriculture reconstituted their pesticide disposal program.”

The word, “reconstitute,” is the exact terminology used by MDA in their press release and that Scoville used it was a little odd – in any tense, it’s not a commonly used word.

I then explained to Scoville that was precisely why I was calling and I wanted to get a comment from Terrasa about it.

Scoville then said she wasn’t sure the comeback of MDA’s pesticide disposal program was related to House Bill 1025, but she added, “it seems like it.”

I spoke to Ferguson to better understand what happened.

He told me after the bill was sent back to committee, there was a meeting between many of the key players, including Terrasa and representatives from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), MDA and others.

According to Ferguson, he thought the intent of the bill was just to get rid of carbofuran and that’s what was addressed – he said the pesticide disposal program was brought back, NRP already has the ability to seize things on farms related to wildlife crimes (including pesticides) and people that have carbofuran will now have an opportunity to safely dispose of it.

Ferguson explained, “we have, through working with MDA, they went ahead and voluntarily agreed to starting the program back up again.”

I had been told by another person in that meeting, they felt MDA’s program was started up again because of House Bill 1025.

MDA sees it differently.

According to Jason Schellhardt, MDA spokesperson, “The department has been exploring ways to bring back its recurring Pesticide Disposal Program since it was last run in 2011, this is not a direct response to any piece of legislation. We are excited to reconstitute this popular program that provides a free service for farmers to safely dispose of any old, unwanted or unusable pesticide products.”

I hadn’t shared this statement publicly yet and after I spoke to Ferguson, I called Schellhardt to ask if there were any changes to the statement.

I was told the statement was fine as is.

Ferguson called me after I spoke to MDA and left a message stating, “I don’t if we got wires crossed or what not, but I did want to clarify the MDA bringing out the pesticide disposal – that had already been in the works. Actually, it was part of a program to take care of chloryphos from last year – the regulations. So this just helped add more reasoning for pushing putting that out. So, I didn’t want to be speaking for MDA. But they had already this pesticide disposal launching it again prior to putting this out prior to this bill being introduced …”

Does it matter how or why the program started back up again? The bottom line is another program to get rid of carbofuran can’t hurt.

Ferguson told me he checked with MDA and one farmer had already submitted an application to turn in carbofuran.

“When it all comes down to it, the bill did its job,” Ferguson said, “Sometimes bills do their jobs without having to be passed.”

Wait – there was already a way to get rid of carbofuran safely

Two times a year, in the spring and in the fall, and rotating between the mid-shore counties, there are hazardous waste drop off days, during which carbofuran can be brought in for safe disposal.

Those that run the program and the Maryland Department of Agriculture told me it’s fine to bring carbofuran in, it’s the perfect opportunity to do so and there are no questions asked.

Ferguson and Terrasa were not aware of it – both told me that.

In other words, eagles have been killed by carbofuran and while there were plenty of opportunities to safely dispose of it.

Now what?

After I explained to Ferguson the connection between RSAs and the carbofuran incidents, he said the bill should have been more directed at RSAs and DNR should doing something about it.

I explained that many RSAs are on farms. In fact, Gregg Bortz, spokesperson for DNR told me most RSAs on the Eastern Shore are on farms.

Ferguson said no one should be using carbofuran and if this still needs to be addressed after the pesticide disposal program has given people more opportunity to dispose of carbofuran, he’d be happy to help solve the issue, but he made it clear, this is more of a DNR problem and he’d like DNR to do something about it.

Though they’re called “regulated” shooting areas and though DNR is supposed to regulate them, DNR has never acknowledged the connection between RSAs and carbofuran usage.

Last year, the USFWS acknowledged the connection between RSAs and carbofuran in an article about “nuisance wildlife” that was originally published in Delmarva Farmer. Because of my extensive reporting on the carbofuran issue, I asked USFWS and was granted permission to publish the article also.

DNR does not mention in its habitat management form (“required for RSAs that release free-flying mallard ducks”) any verbiage about the use of pesticides to control “nuisance” wildlife, such as bald eagles.

With so many eagles dead by carbofuran poisoning, a USFWS special agent saying the majority of the carbofuran cases he investigated were about protecting captive-raised mallards on RSAs, the USFWS publishing an article about the dangers of carbofuran (including on RSAs) and the risk to those on RSAs, one might think DNR would address the issue considering they’re supposed to regulate “regulated shooting areas.”

People running RSAs, whether it’s the land owner or those that lease the property, should be required, at the very least, to sign a document stating they understand the consequences of using carbofuran or any lethal pesticide to eradicate “nuisance wildlife.”

DNR has known about these carbofuran-related mass mortality incidents and where they’ve happened. These cases have happened for years – before and after the federal ban.

And though I’ve asked, DNR won’t release the addresses of non-commercial RSAs – only the names of the permit holders. This because of privacy concerns – never mind the health concerns.

If the welfare of the bald eagles isn’t a concern for DNR, what about carbofuran exposure for those unsuspecting RSA users who are shooting and consuming mallards? What about the health of the farmers, their families and those who consume the food they produce? What about the welfare of the law enforcement officers responding to these sites after a mass mortality event?

The farm lobby is right – this is a DNR problem.

How many inspections does DNR do on RSAs and what do they look for? It’s hard to tell from the limited number of inspection reports I received from DNR (some of which did include the locations of non-commercial RSAs).

I questioned why I didn’t receive more inspection reports.

According to an email from Gene Deems, public information act coordinator for DNR, “I was able to find out more information and what you were previously given are the responsive documents we have. Although there may not be inspections in the RMS, the officers do routinely go on to these properties to check hunters on RSAs for compliance. This does not require documentation in the part of the officer, as this is the normal course of their duties unless there is a violation of some sort. Some of the checks may be listed in RMS under “Hunting-Miscellaneous”. There could be other codes in RMS where these are captured also. For instance if a safety zone complaint were received involving an RSA, it would likely be under the code for safety zone. It would be impossible to ferret all of these instances out of our system.  That is where we are right now. Regarding the other reports I mentioned, none were from the counties you are interested in, and they are all similar as to what you had received.”

The inspection report forms don’t have any space for addressing “nuisance wildlife” control measures.

But there is a part about verifying applicant has received and reviewed a copy of the Regulated Shooting Area Regulations.

Surely DNR must have something in the RSA regulations that addresses the use of illegal or banned pesticides, such as carbofuran, as a means of eradicating “nuisance wildlife” on RSAs. There’s nothing.

Are RSAs safe or are they the wild west?

In 2016, Martin Coppage, a 75-year-old hunting guide, was killed in an accident on a RSA.

In the wake of this accident on the RSA where Coppage was killed, DNR didn’t seem to want to provide information to a reporter, who wrote about it in an article titled, “Md. DNR doesn’t document use of regulated shooting areas.”

That Cumberland Times-News article states, “Jane Coppage is Marvin’s widow. She says she doesn’t want what happened on Oct. 10 to happen to anybody else, pointing out that she means both victims and shooters. Coppage and her family believe those who hunt at an RSA should be held to the same safety certification requirements as any other hunter in the state.”

Candy Thomson is the former public information officer for the Maryland Natural Resources Police. I asked for her thoughts on how DNR responded to the Coppage tragedy.

Thomson relied, “the debate over whether to categorize it as a hunting death or shooting death involved multiple meetings and the DNR secretary and deputy secretary, the governor’s office and assistant AGs. Several DNR officials were adamant that it not be categorized as a hunting fatality because it was on a RSA.”

Hunters that I’ve spoken to have told me what people are doing on RSAs isn’t hunting because there’s no sport involved with shooting a captive bird that’s released right in front of the shooter.

Thomson wrote, “the whole hunting vs. shooting thing was a semantic exercise that served no useful purpose but to protect the RSAs from additional regulation by the General Assembly and outrage from the anti-hunting crowd.”

But make no mistake – these commercial RSAs make money, some of which goes back to the state.

As for the non-commercial RSAs, a large number of the names of permit holders I received from DNR is a who’s who of wealth and privilege in Maryland.

There are a lot of good people working at DNR and they’re doing important work.

But DNR is also a holding tank for political appointees and where politics and conservation mix, things can go wrong for natural resources, while politically-connected groups get their way.

DNR seems to be pretending what’s happened on RSAs is not their issue and Governor Hogan, whether not informed about it or looking the other way, hasn’t helped.

RSAs are the wild west because DNR has allowed them to be.

Eagles and people have died on RSAs. Regulated shooting areas are supposed to be regulated and if DNR can’t do it, Maryland’s General Assembly and/or Governor Hogan’s office should address it before more people and eagles are killed.

Regarding the eagle poisonings, Governor Hogan indicated his “administration is taking these incidents very seriously and doing everything we can to prevent further damage to our ecosystem and the Bald Eagle population.”

I hope the Governor Hogan realizes what he stated is just not true. DNR is not doing everything it can do and if more eagles are killed, it’s because not everything has been done.

What else went wrong with House Bill 1025?

How did the relationship between the carbofuran incidents and RSAs, as well as the already existing hazardous waste program, not get relayed in the bill or in the hearing?

I spoke to Terrasa at length. There was a clear breakdown in communication between those that lobbied for this bill (Safe Skies Maryland) and Terrasa – the one who sponsored it.

That breakdown in communication goes back to Safe Skies Maryland.

The former executive director of Safe Skies Maryland contacted me in 2019 about the potential for legislation.

Originally, I didn’t think there was anything that could be done because carbofuran was already banned at the federal level.

Then I interviewed Kuncir. He said a state law that bans the possession of carbofuran could help law enforcement.

I introduced Kuncir to the former executive director of Safe Skies Maryland.

According to Terrasa, she never spoke to the former executive director of Safe Skies Maryland or to Kuncir.

I never spoke to Terrasa before this week – I’m a journalist and I can’t advocate for bills.

When asked, I shared my reporting and knowledge about the carbofuran incidents with the former executive director of Safe Skies Maryland and with Kuncir.

I knew they had met with Sen. Jack Bailey last year about it. I knew he was a former NRP officer. I knew that the bill was delayed due to a lack of a sponsorship. And then I knew Terrasa was sponsoring it and Bailey wasn’t.

What we know now is what happened to the former executive director of Safe Skies Maryland and how all of my communication with her seemed to go by the wayside.

The farm lobby killed House Bill 1025 because of concern for farmers. Ferguson was doing his job – advocating for farmers.

What next?

I’ll continue reporting on carbofuran-related mortality incidents in Maryland/Delmarva.

With House Bill 1025 defeated, what can be done to safeguard humans, wildlife and the environment from carbofuran?

Carbofuran can seep into ground water, wells, irrigation systems, as well as the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. This was discussed in the hearing for House Bill 1025.

Both the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and the MDA told me no one contacted them when these mass mortality incidents happened. Carbofuran was used on farms and MDE had no idea – that’s a problem.

MDE and MDA should be notified immediately about all carbofuran cases in Maryland. The USFWS, as well as NRP, have responded to carbofuran-related cases in the past.

There’s no question that carbofuran is still lurking in old barns and sheds in Maryland – it should be disposed of properly before more eagles are killed – before humans are sickened or killed.

While I can’t advocate for a bill, I can question what led to a bill’s death and make the public aware what can help stop these carbofuran incidents.

DNR’s lack of taking responsibility on the carbofuran issue is putting RSA users at risk, it’s putting NRP officers who respond to these incidents at risk, it’s putting farmers and their families at risk and it’s putting the general public at risk. And yes, of course, it’s putting our natural resources at risk – carbofuran has already killed a lot of these natural resources.

As we’ve seen before, eagles are a finite resource – DDT, another pesticide, took them to the brink of extinction.

All of these eagle poisoning incidents have happened during eagle nesting season. Without two adult parents to take care of eggs or young eaglets, nothing in those nests could survive. It’s likely many more eagles have died due to these carbofuran poisoning cases.

I spoke to Kuncir about the bill dying. He was among a small group of people responsible for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banning carbofuran and that was no easy or fast process.

He believes there’s still a lot of carbofuran remaining in Maryland and more eagles will die.

Kuncir said he’s not going anywhere and getting this problem solved in Maryland is still on his “bucket list.”

He reminded me again what he asked Bailey during their meeting to discuss sponsoring the carbofuran bill.

“How many dead bodies do you want us to bring you before you take action?” asked Kuncir.

Further reading – The ‘Carbo Wars

Donna L. Cole is an award-winning reporter who currently works for WNAV News. For her reporting work on the eagle poisonings, she received the 2019 and 2020 Society of Professional Journalists DC Pro Chapter Dateline Awards for Investigative Journalism, the 2018 Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association Outstanding Enterprise Journalism award and the 2019 Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association award for Documentary/In-Depth Reporting. 

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