‘How many dead bodies do you want us to bring you before you take action?’ Carbofuran loophole bill hopes to safeguard the public, law enforcement personnel and bald eagles

A bill to make the possession of carbofuran illegal will be introduced to the Maryland General Assembly in the upcoming legislative session, according to Beth Decker, executive director of Safe Skies Maryland, a conservation initiative which focuses on human-caused bird mortality issues.  

Though the toxic pesticide was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2009, it’s been used repeatedly and intentionally to kill wildlife on Maryland’s Eastern Shore since the ban. At least 30 bald eagles have been killed by carbofuran on Maryland’s Eastern Shore since 2009 – 2 in Cordova in 2009, 2 in Easton in 2012, 1 in Preston in 2014, 13 in Federalsburg in 2016, 5 in Easton in 2017, 1 in Cordova in 2019 and 6 in Chestertown in 2019. In some of these cases, more birds were poisoned, but survived.

All of these cases happened during bald eagle nesting season. Because it takes two adult eagles to protect and/or feed eggs and young eaglets, it’s likely many more than 30 eagles have been killed by carbofuran poisoning on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the last ten years.   

Bald eaglets in a Maryland nest

When the EPA bans a pesticide, states have the right to enact legislation which is as or more stringent than the federal law. This was never done in Maryland.

Bald eagles are federally protected birds, thus investigations into these mass mortality incidents are handled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Because USFWS agents aren’t always immediately available, Maryland Natural Resources Police have, in some cases, been the first law enforcement agency on site.

These poisonings are not new – there’s a long history of the misuse of carbofuran as predator control on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. There’s been an equally long history of inaction by the state to stop it.

According to Frank Kuncir, a retired USFWS special agent, who investigated these cases for years, federal agents referred to their battling of the problem as the “Carbo Wars.” In interviews with WNAV, Kuncir said most of the carbofuran cases he investigated were related to protecting captive-raised mallards on shooting preserves. These shooting preserves are now known as regulated shooting areas (RSAs), where captive-raised birds are released to be shot by hunters. Because they’re predators, bald eagles and other wildlife, will prey on ducks.

In an article in The Washington Post, USFWS Special Agent John LaCorte, who has also investigated these cases, referred to the carbofuran poisonings as an “epidemic on the Eastern Shore.”

According to Gregg Bortz, media relations manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, “most, not all” of the RSAs on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are located on farms. However, the RSA permit holder is not necessarily the property owner – the owner of the property can lease their land for use as an RSA.

In each of the cases, the eagles were victims of secondary poisoning by carbofuran after predating on poisoned raccoons or foxes. It’s not unusual, according to Kuncir, as well as public records and case information that WNAV has received through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, for wildlife, including eagles, to be baited with carbofuran, in order to purposely kill them. It’s also no secret that bald eagles, which are scavengers, will eat dead or dying animals, including those that have been poisoned.

The motive for the poisonings, related to regulated shooting areas and captive ducks, was not common knowledge until Kuncir was interviewed by WNAV.

Kuncir told WNAV a state law to ban the possession of carbofuran could help.

Following the most recent bald eagle poisonings in March and April of this year, Governor Larry Hogan posted on Facebook, “Our administration is taking these incidents very seriously and doing everything we can to prevent further damage to our ecosystem and the Bald Eagle population.”

WNAV reached out to the Governor’s office about the Facebook post and asked if an executive order to make carbofuran illegal to possess was being considered. The Governor had previously used an executive order to move school start dates after Labor Day.

The question, not answered by the Governor’s office, was referred to the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) for response.

According to an email received from Jason D. Schellhardt, MDA’s director of communications, “We are looking into it, but it is our understanding that a ban on possession would require legislation from the General Assembly.”

In subsequent follow-ups to MDA about the question, Schellhardt responded with the same answer.

Decker is leading the initiative for the carbofuran loophole bill, which she says does have sponsorship by members of the Maryland General Assembly. She’s been working with Kuncir drafting the bill and said his help has been “invaluable.”  Because of Kuncir’s lengthy investigative experience with the misuse of carbofuran, he, along with a small team of others, led to the EPA ban of the deadly chemical.

In June of 2018, WNAV’s reporter Donna Cole broke the story that it was carbofuran that killed the 13 bald eagles in Federalsburg in 2016. In July 2018, Cole again broke the story that carbofuran killed five bald eagles in Easton in 2017.  She’s continued her reporting, submitting numerous FOIA requests and documenting a long history of carbofuran poisonings.

In March of 2019, Decker and Cole were both at an event in Annapolis. Decker asked Cole what could be done to help the eagles. At that point, Cole responded there was already a federal ban on carbofuran and wasn’t sure of anything else.

In June of 2019, after Cole interviewed Kuncir and had a greater understanding of the motive and issues surrounding these cases, she introduced him to Decker. During the months between June and November, Cole was not privy to any information coming from that introduction or conversations between Decker and Kuncir.

The three met briefly in November 2019, prior to a meeting Decker and Kuncir were having with a state legislator.

According to Kuncir, his “parting shot” to the legislator was, “How many dead bodies do you want us to bring you before you take action?”

The full interview with Beck Decker will air Friday, December 13 at 2 pm on WNAV.

Full interviews with Frank Kuncir – https://www.annapoliscreative.com/though-bald-eagle-poisoning-cases-have-been-happening-for-years-a-law-that-could-help-was-never-enacted-in-maryland/

Photo at top of story by Troy Whaley.

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