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Opinion: An ‘Epidemic’ the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Doesn’t Want You to Know About

There is an “epidemic” of wildlife poisonings on the Eastern Shore. It probably goes well beyond that geographically, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has gone above and beyond keeping this information from the public.

According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent that investigated the poisonings of 13 bald eagles found dead in Maryland in 2016, we have an “epidemic” of wildlife poisonings on the Eastern Shore – that took a lot of courage for him to admit that, because it seems the agency he works for doesn’t want the public to know about it.

It took me multiple e-mails, phone calls and ultimately the second of two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests sent to the USFWS to get the results of what killed those birds. And apparently I have to do it again and again and again because of other cases.

When there is a public health epidemic for people, as far as I know, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is very responsive informing the public about it. This type of information needs to be communicated to the public – because it saves lives. Because the public has a right to know.

The same isn’t true for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and by the way, this “epidemic” of wildlife poisonings could have human health implications.

Birds and wildlife are dying at an alarming rate on the Eastern Shore. They’re dying by poisoning – through secondary poisoning from chemicals/pesticides intended for rodents that eat crops and through lead poisoning from ammunition.

These issues are bipartisan. This has been going on a for a long time.  Hopefully bringing attention to these cases will prompt action. It already has – the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) will now be incorporating a presentation on this issue as part of the re-certification requirements for licensed pesticide applicators in Maryland.  It’s a start.

And  while licensed pesticide applicators will get a new presentation, how about the people that aren’t licensed? Let’s start with the farmers – I’m sure most are wonderful people. They wouldn’t be working the land if they didn’t love it. But there are apparently some that in trying to protect the land they love and which is providing their income, they’re poisoning animals that are trying to eat their crops. The farmers might or might not realize the consequences that those poisoned animals become food for the rest of the food chain and they die – as was the case with one poisoned raccoon killing 13 bald eagles.  Death by poisoning is a horrible, painful death. It’s not instantaneous. The animals suffer.  Let’s go beyond that though – if the pesticide is being used on or near crops  – crops that are then destined for human or animal consumption,  well, you get the idea.

How does this get stopped? A federally banned pesticide was used in the case of the 13 dead bald eagles. More education for farmers and pesticide applicators is needed. As is a willingness by the USFWS to inform the public of poisonings once their law enforcement cases are closed – not requiring a FOIA For. Every. Single. Case.

There are many hunters on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I’m certain most are good people and I do know many of them. They clean up after themselves, they teach and preach stewardship for the land and they’re very responsible gun owners. They love the Chesapeake. Lead ammunition is all that they’ve known and all that they’ve used. It’s just the way it’s been. The problem is there will always be some animals, or parts of, left behind – maybe intentional, maybe not.  Whatever is  left behind becomes food for lots of other wildlife.  Also worth noting is even some of those animals that are killed with lead ammunition becomes food for humans.  What are the effects of lead on humans? Not good  – especially not good for children.

Short of wildlife rescue organizations trying to get the word out how much death and destruction they’ve seen from lead, to my knowledge, there hasn’t been much, if any, education aimed at getting hunters to switch from lead ammunition. Yes, there are alternatives. Why is it just the wildlife rehab facilities are sharing this important information? A few months ago, I was talking with an Eastern Shore hunter, who also happens to be a teacher – a good guy, a caring guy. He was shocked to learn about the lead poisoning issue. He truly had no idea. He said he would consider switching.

How does this get stopped?  If not a ban, education seems like a great idea. You might be asking why hasn’t there been a ban on lead ammo – it was banned in paint and gas. Perhaps there will be a federal ban on lead ammunition one day, but until then, hunting store owners, hunting guides and educators – why not go to something that isn’t lethal for the food chain (including humans)? Why not try to educate hunters  on the effects of lead on humans and wildlife?

What else will help? A willingness by the USFWS to release details of poisoning cases with the public and to work with state agencies that have a vested interest in and perhaps better knowledge of their local areas.  Why wasn’t the MDA asked to help with a case involving a banned pesticide? The MDA, the Maryland agency tasked with enforcement of pesticide violations,  shouldn’t learn about an “epidemic” of wildlife poisonings through media reports, but through cooperation of federal agencies with their state partners. I do appreciate the willingness of the MDA to share that information.

While we know 13 bald eagles and a raccoon died by carbofuran poisoning in 2016, we don’t  know how two  bald eagles and a fox died eleven months later (in January 2017) – they were found in a field in Easton, Md. by Troy Whaley, who fortunately found them in time to save a third bald eagle at the same site.

“That was the one bright spot,” said Whaley.  “At least I found them in time that they could save that one – the other two were already gone. I was just going to town to get some supplies and I saw them in the field – it just didn’t look right.”

The third bald eagle (photo below) was a juvenile. The other two were adults.

Whaley pointed out that though he’s not a scientist, he believes it was carbofuran that killed the fox and two bald eagles because of how little the birds had eaten and how little carbofuran it takes to kill – only the stomach (guts) of the fox appeared to be eaten.  Thank  you to Whaley for sharing the photos. If they’re hard to look at for you (as they were for me), imagine how difficult it was to see this horrific scene in person.

Because we don’t know what killed the two eagles and fox, I asked the USFWS about the case this week.

“I’ve been told that the case has been closed and that a FOIA would be required to get the information you request,” wrote Catherine Hibbard, a spokesperson for the USFWS. “Thanks for your interest in this case.”

Change is needed. The public has a right to know. And yes, I have an interest in all of these cases. If you know of others, please let me know.

 

By the way, I just submitted the FOIA with the backing of WNAV – thank you to to Steve Hopp, WNAV’s general manager.




Thirteen Reasons Why I Didn’t Give Up On The Bald Eagle Story

Thirteen bald eagles died on a farm in Maryland in 2016. They died a horrible death. They suffered. And so did a raccoon.

After over two years of asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) what, not who, killed the birds, I finally got the answer in 2018.

I asked because the public had a right to know. We knew a human was responsible for the bald eagle deaths because the USFWS had released that information back in 2016. But what killed these birds, found on a farm in Federalsburg, Md., was important information that wasn’t being released. If it  killed once, it could do it again. And again. And again.

If you’re not familiar with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), it’s a request for information that has to be answered. It can’t be ignored, like emails or phone calls might be.  A FOIA can be denied, but a reason for denial  has to be provided. That can be appealed.

An open law enforcement case was the reason for denial in my first FOIA  to USFWS back in 2016.  It was actually my first FOIA in over 20 years as a journalist.  I knew appealing the FOIA would be fruitless because if this was an open law enforcement case, they wouldn’t jeopardize the case by releasing information to the public. But because the USFWS had indicated back in 2016, that they would be closing the case for lack of evidence tying anyone to the crime (yes, killing bald eagles is a federal crime), I knew they couldn’t deny this information forever. Multiple emails and phone calls were ignored thereafter.  If they weren’t ignored entirely, I was told they’d check with their law enforcement division and get back to me. And then nothing. I submitted another FOIA in May of 2018. The answer came the following month.

I knew going into this the cause of death would be a pesticide or lead, but a banned pesticide was shocking to me. And one that is so very toxic was horrifying. We shared the story on WNAV and it wasn’t long after,  I realized I had to share the results with someone that could get the information out to a larger audience. I reached out to The Washington Post. Much thanks to Karin Brulliard for being so responsive, getting this story out there and telling it so well.  I also learned, thanks to The Washington Post story, we had what a federal wildlife agent would call an “epidemic on the Eastern Shore.”

I am so very thankful this story has now been seen by so many.  When I woke up yesterday morning to find an email in my inbox from a reporter at The New York Times asking for the information I had and asking for my help – that’s not something that happens every day.  Or any day in my past for that matter.  Carobofuran shouldn’t still be out there, it shouldn’t be used, it’s banned in the United States and it has killed multiple times. 

What’s next?  I contacted the Environmental Protection Agency as soon as I had the results. They were very responsive. The bottom line is the states are responsible for pesticide violations. I asked the Maryland Department of Agriculture, which is tasked with the enforcement of pesticide violations, what they’re going to do about it.  Their answer was to send me to another state agency that has nothing to do with the enforcement of pesticide violations. I will keep asking.

For the back story and one you should know – I love animals. Always have. And it was in 2012 I developed a love for birds of prey. It’s a long story, but to make it short – two barred owls had given birth to two owlets in my yard or very close to it.  I was in bed, recovering from a bilateral mastectomy gone wrong and I thought I was hallucinating (I was on pain killers) when I kept seeing and hearing odd things. I wasn’t hallucinating. The owlets were learning how to fly. Those birds got me out of bed, holding my camera again and moving. Through my lens, I’ve been focusing on birds of prey ever since  – it helps take the focus off of my pain.

In 2017, I asked  Steve Hopp, WNAV’s general manager,  if we could stop giving away balloons at events. There was something else I asked him. He said yes to both requests. On July 7, 2017, I posted the following on WNAV’s Facebook page – “At WNAV we have an enormous amount of respect for our environment and all of those who call it home. As such, we’ve decided we will no longer be giving away balloons. This decision was made out of consideration for the wildlife that could be harmed by errantly released or improperly disposed balloons. We will have other giveaways for kids and adults when you see us broadcasting at some of our wonderful area events. This is also a great opportunity to let you know WNAV has become the first media partner of the Maryland Bird Conservation Partnership, a coalition of agencies and organizations dedicated to reducing threats to Maryland’s birds.” In 2018, I volunteered to help the Maryland Bird Conservation Partnership, by being a bald eagle nest monitor.  I monitored three nests – two on the Eastern Shore and one in Annapolis. The video below is from this past April at the Annapolis nest.

There you have it. There were thirteen very personal reasons why I didn’t let this story go. Thirteen bald eagles that mattered.

 

Update – WNAV withdrew as a partner of the Maryland Bird Conservation Partnership in March 2021. More information about that is here.




Add These to Your Eastern Shore / Maryland To-Do List

You know those moments when you were planning on doing one thing, but then …

There we were, husband, kid and I, driving down the road, heading to St. Michaels when we passed the sign for the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry.  I said, “we haven’t done that for a while.” Husband responded with, “turn around – let’s do it.”

A beautiful drive led us to the ferry dock in Bellevue.  A sign stated the ferry leaves every 20 minutes and since we didn’t see it, we parked and walked around the small marina, home to mostly workboats. There was also an adjacent beach, which would be a great place for young kids to play.

The ferry service began operating in 1683.  Yes, 1683.  Do you know of any privately-owned business which started in 1683 that’s still around today?  For this reason, the Oxford-Bellevue ferry is thought to be the oldest operating, privately-owned ferry service in this country.  The Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry in Connecticut started service in 1655, making it the oldest ferry service in the U.S. in continuous operation – it is run by the state of Connecticut.

20 minutes after we arrived, we saw the ferry heading towards us.  It took only a few minutes for the other cars to disembark and for mine to load.  Yes, for our crossing – we were the only ones on it.  The crossing over the Tred Avon River takes 10 minutes.  $12 includes the car and the driver and it’s $1 for each additional person.  Do yourself a favor and take a ride on the ferry sometime, especially if you’ve never done it before – it’s part of Maryland’s history.

One other tip for you and also in this same area of the Eastern Shore – when I was asked what I wanted to do on Mother’s Day, or more specifically where I wanted to eat, I said Scossa.

In my humble opinion,  I’d say it’s one of Maryland’s best restaurants – definitely in my top three.  The people of Talbot County are probably going to be upset with me for letting this secret out of the hat, but so be it.

Located in downtown Easton, just across from the courthouse, Scossa offers indoor and outside seating – we always sit outside.

What makes Scossa so good is Giancarlo Tondin, who has a pretty remarkable history in the restaurant world that goes well beyond Maryland.  Read about that here –  http://www.scossarestaurant.com/story/

That was my Mother’s Day and thank you to my family for a great day.  I hope yours was wonderful too.

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If you’re going to have a sidecar, you have to have a sidekick.

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