Public health concern left in wake of eagle poisonings in Maryland – carbofuran loophole bill delayed

While carbofuran, a federally banned and toxic pesticide, has been used repeatedly on Eastern Shore farmland to kill wildlife, including at least 30 bald eagles between 2009 and 2019,  the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) refuses to provide addresses for the properties where those poisonings occurred and where food for human consumption is produced – Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) also never checked these properties for carbofuran contamination of soil, water or wells because no state or federal agency requested them to do so.

WNAV asked MDE if  they checked any of the sites between 2009 and 2019 where dead bald eagles have been found.  Those sites include Cordova farm (2009 – 2 eagles), Easton farm (2012 – 2 eagles), Preston farm (2014 – 1 eagle), Federalsburg farm (2016- 13 eagles), Easton farm (2017 – 5 eagles), Cordova farm (2019 – 1 eagle) and Chestertown farm (2019 – 6 eagle and one great horned owl).

“A check into your inquiry found no indication that MDE has performed sampling at the sites you describe,” replied Jay Apperson, deputy director in MDE’s office of Communications. “The Maryland Department of Agriculture regulates pesticides and it is our understanding that Natural Resources Police and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated the eagles’ deaths. The check into your inquiry to MDE found no indication that any of these entities requested that MDE perform sampling .”  

Without the public knowing exactly where these incidents have occurred and without testing by the Maryland Department of Environment to ensure that food or water on these properties has not been contaminated, it is a public safety concern.

Soybeans, according to a Washington Post article, were grown on the farm where 13 bald eagles were found dead in Federalsburg, Md. in 2016. The article followed WNAV sharing with the Washington Post that carbofuran was what killed the eagles – the  pathology report was received by WNAV through a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “as with other N-methyl carbamate pesticides, the critical effect of carbofuran for various exposure durations is cholinesterase inhibition; that is, it can overstimulate the nervous system causing nausea, dizziness, confusion, and at very high exposures (e.g. accidents or major spills), respiratory paralysis and death.”

While carbofuran is banned at the federal level and is illegal to use, buy or sell, there is no law at the state level banning its possession, which has left a loophole – Frank Kuncir, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent who investigated these cases for years and who was a key player in getting the Environmental Protection Agency to ban carbofuran, told WNAV closing that loophole would help law enforcement.  

Beth Decker, executive director of Safe Skies Maryland, a conservation initiative focused on human-caused bird mortality issues, with help from Kuncir, drafted a bill that was to be presented to Maryland’s General Assembly this session. On Saturday, Decker informed WNAV the sponsor for the bill decided to delay action until next year.

“Safe Skies Maryland worked very hard with members of the House and Senate to get a bill introduced to buy back and safely destroy remaining stockpiles of the poison carbofuran that continue to jeopardize Maryland communities despite a federal ban effectively canceling all uses in 2009, but failing to address the loophole of continued possession,” Decker wrote in an email. “We can think of no legitimate reason to keep a chemical deemed so dangerous that it cannot be used, sold, or traded thereby leaving it to degrade in bags and containers or worse, be used illegally to poison wildlife including Maryland’s globally significant population of bald eagles.  The bill’s Senate sponsor decided that it was not where he would like it to be for this year and has agreed to make it a priority for early filing next year.”   

Carbofuran doesn’t immediately disappear from the environment after its use.

According to a 2003 University of Minnesota pathway study about carbofuran degradation, “Since it (carbofuran) is water soluble and mobile in soil environments, it is very likely to contaminate lakes and ground water, so a major exposure to it is by drinking contaminated water.”

Irrigation system water might also be subject to contamination.

Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has repeatedly refused to provide addresses for what they call “non-commercial” regulated shooting areas (RSAs) on Maryland’s Eastern Shore – this despite the number of cases where carbofuran, a deadly and federally banned pesticide, has been used to kill wildlife on RSAs in the past.

RSAs are what the DNR calls shooting preserves – places where the public can shoot captive-raised birds, such as mallards (ducks). And RSAs on the Eastern Shore of Maryland are most often on farms, according to Gregg Bortz, DNR’s media relations manager.  

There is a long connection between RSAs and poisoned eagle incidents.  According to Kuncir, most of the cases he investigated were about protecting captive-raised birds held on shooting preserves.

While those captive-raised birds, such as mallards, are income producers for RSAs, they’re also prey for bald eagles and other wildlife.

While bald eagles have been found in most of these cases to be victims of secondary poisoning by carbofuran after predating on raccoons and foxes that were baited with the carbofuran first, it’s no secret to those that might want to target bald eagles to just poison their food chain.

Kuncir’s first carbofuran case was in Western Maryland in the mid-1980s, although carbofuran wasn’t banned at that point.

What else happened in the mid-1980s in Maryland?

According to a 2013 report titled, “Review of captive-raised mallard regulations on shooting preserves,” which was compiled by the Assistant Director, Migratory Birds for the USFWS, “Interest in shooting captive-reared mallards on shooting preserves increased dramatically during the mid-1980s when numbers of wild ducks declined and hunting regulations became more restricted to protect breeding populations. Private landowners on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, who practiced releasing captive-reared mallards to be free-ranging, became increasingly frustrated with the loss of hunting opportunity associated with Federal regulations limiting the take of captive-reared mallards to seasons and bag limits set for wild mallards.”

Given the information that came from Kuncir during the interviews with WNAV, the timeline of the eagle poisonings in Maryland, as well as the general locations of mass mortality incidents, which WNAV has mapped, there is a clear relationship between properties used for shooting and the bald eagle poisonings on the Delmarva Peninsula.

RSA permit holders are not necessarily the landowners, as others can lease property from landowners for RSAs. It’s also possible that landowners aren’t aware of what has happened on their own properties, if leased to others or if others are maintaining the land for them.   

Inspections of RSAs aren’t required on a regular basis, according to Deems. He did state in an email, “the officers do routinely go on to these properties to check hunters on RSAs for compliance.”

There are two types of RSAs in Maryland. According to DNR’s website, “A Commercial RSA means a regulated shooting area that is open to the public, while a Non-commercial RSA is closed to the public or has closed membership.”

Both commercial and non-commercial RSAs are being used by people at a price – the non-commercial RSAs operate like clubs and membership comes at an upfront cost. Commercial RSAs are pay as you go.

When carbofuran is used on these properties, that means shooters might be exposed to it without their knowledge. Those captive-birds being shot are also potentially exposed to carbofuran – birds that will be consumed by humans.  

WNAV asked DNR to put in writing why they wouldn’t provide addresses for non-commercial RSAs.

Deems emailed, “You also asked me to put in writing why some were redacted, removing the Personally Identifiable Information (PII) from the documents. There are privacy regulations which protect our customers. If a person is operating as a commercial business, the privacy regulations regarding PII do not apply. However, if there are licenses or permits for individuals not operating as a business, then PII protection does apply.”

There is another consideration – while USFWS agents have had poisoned wildlife response training, Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) and Maryland Park Service personnel haven’t. Though the USFWS is the lead agency for investigating these cases, they aren’t always first on the scene. NRP officers, along with Maryland Park Service personnel, have responded first in many of these cases and without poisoned wildlife response training or use of protective gear, they are at risk for carbofuran exposure.

WNAV asked DNR about that lack of training.

“There is no specific training  — when Natural Resources employees respond to a report of deceased animals, if ingestion of a poison is suspected, carcasses would be removed to a lab for testing,” Bortz responded. “Suspected illegal use of pesticides would be investigated by the Department of Agriculture. DNR personnel would not handle the substance.”

In the 2019 Chestertown case where six bald eagles and one great horned owl were found dead, Kim McLamb, an Eastern Shore-based volunteer bird rescuer got a call to respond to the incident. The call came from Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, a Delaware-based bird rehabilitation and research facility. It’s not unusual for bird rescue organizations to get calls from the public for bird emergencies, but volunteer bird rescuers don’t have poisoned wildlife response training. They also don’t have training in preserving the integrity of evidence in crime scenes.

Fortunately, McLamb got a call back right away and was told not to respond, presumedly because of the number of dead birds found. Because of concern for her own health and that of her family, Mc Lamb, the widow of a firefighter, has since started mapping the cases of bald eagle mass mortality incidents, RSAs and learning more about carbofuran.

As for Safe Skies Maryland and the carbofuran loophole bill, Decker said her work isn’t done –  she said she’s grateful for the support she’s already received from some Maryland legislators and will need support from the public going forward.

“While we of course remain concerned for groundwater contamination, the poisoning of wildlife, and danger to our first responders we are grateful for the support we received with many in both houses agreeing to cosponsor and most importantly, agreeing that this dangerous poison should not be a continued issue,” Decker wrote. “What is most helpful now is for constituents concerned for their communities to reach out to their elected officials and share their concerns, request common-sense solutions that can benefit all concerned, and to appropriately close this loophole.  Every voice matters as we look forward to a healthy environment for birds and for people, knowing that these things are inextricably linked and that our beautiful state has many resources worth fighting for.”

It’s not every property where people shoot ducks that have had problems with carbofuran poisonings. It’s also unknown by WNAV how many RSAs are on food-producing farms on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

There’s no question that carbofuran has been used on the farms and that it can contaminate water and soil, as well as sicken or kill people depending on level of exposure.

That MDE, which is supposed to safeguard environmental health for the citizens of Maryland, did not hear from USFWS, DNR or MDA and, never took samples where carbofuran has been used, is baffling.

Donna L. Cole is an award-winning reporter for WNAV News in Annapolis

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