The Intentional Poisoning of Eagles and Other Wildlife in Maryland
******WARNING – EXTREMELY GRAPHIC PHOTOS*****
Why Do People Keep Poisoning Bald Eagles?
In the past decade, 29 or more bald eagles have been killed by carbofuran poisoning in Maryland. In many of these past cases that happened on the Delmarva peninsula, according to Frank Kuncir, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) special agent, the birds were poisoned by people who were protecting captive-raised mallards – ducks used for the purpose of being released, then shot by hunters on shooting preserves.
Carbofuran was banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2009, although the phase-out began in the years before.
“The motivation is generally in protecting animals that are held on shooting preserves,” Kuncir told me in interviews. Kuncir spent years investigating these cases. The USFWS is tasked with investigating these cases because bald and golden eagles are federally protected. In Maryland, we have lost both bald and golden eagles to carbofuran poisoning – in addition to other wildlife.
Even if the motivation in the most recent cases isn’t about protecting captive-raised ducks, all of the poisoning incidents that I’m aware of in Maryland and on the Delmarva Peninsula, in 2019 and before, happened on or in very close proximity to farms.
What is a Shooting Preserve or Regulated Shooting Area?
Regulated shooting area (RSA) is the term used by the State of Maryland for what was commonly known as a shooting preserve, although the latter name is still used by some. On the Eastern Shore, RSAs are most often on farms.
According the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website, a RSA is “a tract of land, including any waters, on which the licensee may release and shoot captive-raised pheasant, bobwhite quail, chukar partridge, Hungarian partridge, turkeys (turkeys may be released only by those permitted to do so before September 1, 1992) and mallard ducks. The RSA Permit allows the holder of the permit to raise and release properly marked, captive-raised birds.” There are two types of RSA in Maryland, according to the DNR. Their website states, “ 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.” Also, according to DNR’s website, “A person may not operate an unlicensed RSA.”
Here’s where things could get a little tricky for those investigating crimes on RSAs. The RSA permit holder isn’t necessarily the landowner. I emailed a long list of questions to the DNR. One of those questions was if the landowner has to be the RSA permit holder. Gregg Bortz, DNR’s media relations manager, replied, “An applicant does not need to be a landowner.”
What that means is hunting companies or outfitters/guides can lease the land from the owner for hunting. It also might could mean the farm owner doesn’t know what those people might be using on their property.
As for those outfitters, Bortz explained, “All waterfowl outfitters providing guiding services for a fee are required to obtain a license from DNR. Any operating without an outfitters license are doing so illegally under state law.”
A quick internet search led to finding some outfitters, advertising paid services, that are not included on Maryland’s licensed waterfowl outfitters and guides lists – these were obtained from the DNR.
Frank Kuncir isn’t the only one who mentioned bald eagles and RSAs. In May, not long after I posted an article about two of the more recent poisoning incidents on a Kent Island Facebook group, Josh Neuwiller, an Eastern Shore-based outdoorsman, commented. He wrote, “we released 500 mallards on (an RSA) last year and by September 1st we were down to 250 half and 90% were due to eagles! I watched one bird eat 11 ducks in 3 hrs.” He added it’s “very wrong to poach but I can see a guy getting pissed and doing this.”
I’ve spoken to Neuwiller twice since that post. He said the mallards had been released on the RSA in June and by September, he believed eagles had killed half of them. In both conversations, he reiterated that he thinks it’s wrong to kill bald eagles.
Hunters do spend a lot of money to hunt on RSAs. The prices range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. It all starts with stocking the properties with mallards that will eventually be released and shot by hunters. The price of each of those mallards is between $5 to $9, according to both Kuncir and Neufiller. It all adds up – either as income or loss.
Neufiller commented on the post back in May, “this looks to me some individual is poaching them.not the farmers …”
RSAs are inspected. I asked Bortz if a briefing about carbofuran and its dangers are part of the inspection process and if a search for carbofuran was part of it. He replied, “No. Natural Resources Police (NRP) conduct site inspections that are specific to Maryland Natural Resources law and regulation, which does not specifically address carbofuran. Further, though possession of carbofuran is not illegal, the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s (MDA) pesticide regulation inspectors have been doing direct outreach to farmers urging anyone still in possession of carbofuran to safely dispose of it immediately. MDA also issued an enforcement alert for carbofuran following the most recent poisoning event in April 2019.”
Looking a bit more into the RSA permit process, I asked the DNR if felons are allowed to be RSA permit holders. Bortz replied, “Natural Resources article 10-907 establishes provisions for suspending a RSA license. State law does not prohibit a felon from obtaining a license.”
The list of commercial RSAs is on the DNR website. Through the Maryland Public Information Act, I requested a list of the non-commercial RSAs. DNR provided me with names of registered owners and the RSA numbers assigned to each of those permit holders– not addresses.
In Maryland and Beyond
The intentional poisoning of eagles and other wildlife with carbofuran has been happening in Maryland for decades – before and after the ban. According to the 1991 USFWS Station Management Plan for Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, “a total of 15 dead eagles (11 bald and 4 golden) was recovered from Dorchester County in 1988.” That was one incident and according to Kuncir, the birds were poisoned with carbofuran, which was mixed in a can of sardines. There were so many wildlife poisonings cases in Maryland and its neighboring Eastern Shore states, that according to Kuncir, the USFWS agents referred to their battling of the problem as, “the carbo wars.” And it was these cases on the Delmarva Peninsula that, in large part, led to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), banning carbofuran in 2009. Kuncir was part of the team that got that ban to happen and it took years.
At some point, within the past seven years or so, and up until the most recent 2019 cases, the USFWS has been notoriously tight lipped with information released to anyone about the use of this toxic chemical, including Maryland state agencies. I’ve been told this by Kuncir and others. Joseph Bartenfelder, the secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA), told me in September 2018, that no one from USFWS had reported to his agency that it was carbofuran used in the 2016 Federalsburg mass poisoning event that killed 13 bald eagles or the 2017 Easton mass poisoning event that killed five bald eagles. “We haven’t heard anything and that’s very concerning to me that they wouldn’t be, in other words, looping us in on it,” Bartenfelder said. The Maryland Department of Agriculture oversees pesticides use, licensing and violations in the state.
Had it not been for the determination of one Maryland state employee, we likely wouldn’t have found about the Federalsburg case. When those 13 dead bald eagles were found in a farm field on February 20, 2016, Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) was the first responding agency on site. An NRP officer snapped a photo of a dead bald eagle in the field – that photo made its way to NRP’s public information officer, who, at that time, was Candy Thomson. Prior to joining NRP, Thomson was a journalist. She recognized the need to get that photo out to the public and went through some hurdles to do so –the story of the 13 dead bald eagles received global media attention.
In March 2016, the USFWS indicated that the birds in Federalsburg did not die from natural causes and in August 2016, they said they’d be closing the case due to lack of evidence. Because that wasn’t enough information for me, or, in my opinion, for the public, I kept questioning it and submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, until I found out it was carbofuran that killed the birds. I’ve done the same since for other cases of mass poisonings. Between the information received by FOIAs and the interviews with Kuncir, a lot of information has been learned about these cases. The “carbo wars” haven’t ended.
Even with all of the information I’ve reported in the past, I still hear from people surprised to learn that eagles may have been intentionally targeted in some of these cases. Bald eagles have to eat. They’re opportunistic and while fish and duck rank high on their preferred menu items, eagles are scavengers – this means they’ll go after dead animals too. Armed with this knowledge and some carbofuran, people who deliberately want to poison eagles leave carbofuran laced bait out, knowing full well that eagles, and other birds of prey, will die.
This problem isn’t exclusive to Maryland, although in recent history it would seem that way. Ten years after the EPA banned carbofuran, this dirty little secret of an illegal and inhumane method of killing eagles and other wildlife, continues to be been handed down from generation to generation, from neighbor to neighbor and from friend to friend.
In May 2014, according to the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York, “William Wentling mailed a container of Furadan from his home in Rothville, Pa. to his farm in Addison, N.Y. In March of 2015, Wentling directed his employees to pour Furadan over sheep carcasses on his farm for the purpose of controlling predators, specifically, birds of prey. As a result, two bald eagles, two red-tailed hawks, and a rough-legged hawk died after ingesting Furadan-laced sheep. One of the birds was an adult female bald eagle, which was incubating eggs in a nearby nest at the time of its death. In June 2017, Wentling, who was then 68-years-old, pleaded guilty to violation of the Bald and Gold Eagle Protection Act and was sentenced to two years’ probation and fined $3,500.”
As evidenced by the Wentling case, these cases aren’t always brought to justice quickly. It takes time to build a case for prosecution.
In February, 2014, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, charged father and son, Alvin C. Sowinski, then 65, and Paul A. Sowinski, then 46, of Sugar Camp, Wi., with illegal possession of bald eagles. The family owned approximately 8,000 acres, including farm fields, which the U.S. Attorney’s office referred to as, “prime habitat for both wildlife and hunting.” According to a press release about the case, “The elder Sowinski baited multiple sites on the property with wildlife carcasses or processed meats treated with carbofuran – this was to attract and kill bobcats, coyotes, wolves, fishers and other species that prey on the deer and game birds that he and his son routinely hunted on their land. During the first four months of 2010, Federal and State officers documented Sowinski’s placement of poison-laced bait at least nine sites and the nearby deaths of 24 federally protected migratory birds and other species. Investigators also found the remains of two bald eagles and a rough-legged hawk on another part of the property near the location of a deer stand used the previous winter by Paul Sowinski. Alvin Sowinski received a $30,000 fine, a seven-year ban on hunting, fishing and trapping privileges, $100,000 in restitution, one year of probation and four months of home confinement. Paul Sowinski received a $10,000 fine, a five-year ban on his hunting, fishing and trapping privileges, $100,000 in restitution, and one year of probation. Both men pleaded guilty to the charge on May 14, 2014.”
The bald eagle death by carbofuran cases I’m aware of in Maryland since 2009 are:
- 2009 – Cordova, 2 eagles
- 2012 – Easton, 2 eagles
- 2016 – Federalsburg, 13 eagles
- 2017 – Easton, 5 eagles
- 2019 – Cordova, 1 eagle
- 2019 – Chestertown, 6 eagles + 1 great horned owl
There have been many more eagle carbofuran poisoning cases in Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia and across the United States. Beyond the U.S., carbofuran has been used to kill predators around the world, including lions in Africa.
The epicenter of wildlife poisonings – Easton/Cordova
While the Federalsburg poisoning incident in 2016 was the largest in recent history with 13 dead bald eagles, one sliver of Easton and Cordova is the epicenter of carbofuran poisonings in Maryland. Since 2009, 15 bald eagles have been poisoned in Easton/Cordova. Although not all of the birds died, all of them fed on poisoned foxes. Before 2009, there were more along the same stretch of road and reaching into Denton.
According to a press release from the USFWS dated November 24, 2009, “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agents are seeking individuals with information to aid an investigation into the poisoning of five bald eagles in Talbot County, Maryland, discovered Nov. 20 in the Cordova area near Colby Road and Kittys Corner Road … One juvenile eagle and one mature eagle are dead. Three more juvenile eagles remain severely incapacitated. The eagles apparently fed on a fox carcass containing poison.”
According to a press release from the USFWS, “On April 30, 2012, a local citizen found two dead bald eagles near the intersection of Kitty’s Corner and State Road 328 in Easton. The eagles are thought to be have been killed as a result of secondary poisoning after feeding on a fox carcass.” This is very close proximity to that 2009.
In 2018, my FOIA request for information about a January 2017 case in Easton, led to the discovery that five dead bald eagles found on a farm field on Glebe Road in Easton had been poisoned after feeding on a fox carcass. That case happened about eight miles away from the 2012 case.
Less than a mile from that 2012 incident and possibly in the same spot as the 2009 incident, more bald eagles were poisoned. According to joint press release in May 2019 from NRP and USFWS, “On April 3 (2019), authorities were called to a farm in Talbot County, near Lewistown Road and Colby Road in Cordova, where they discovered three bald eagles showing signs of poisoning. The eagles had been feeding on a red fox carcass. Two of the eagles were treated for poisoning and are in stable condition. One of the eagles died at the scene.”
These cases in and near Easton aren’t anything new. According to an USFWS press release from 2003, “Since March 2002, four bald eagles have been found near Easton, Md., apparent victims of poisoning. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agents suspect that one or more people intentionally and unlawfully placed pesticide-laced bait, resulting in death of one of the eagles, according to Special Agent in Charge Thomas J. Healy of the Service’s Northeast Region.” Through a FOIA request, I received 215 pages of information about the cases. The cases were located less than 5 miles away from the Easton cases and along the same road as many of the others.
During my coverage of these eagle poisoning stories there have been times when I’ve held off reporting information to the public. What follows is one such instance and the reason I haven’t shared it is because I don’t know if it’s connected to the eagle poisonings. What I do know is Easton has a long history of eagles and foxes being poisoned with a federally banned pesticide.
Scott Smith is a wildlife ecologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. While interviewing Smith in May 2019 for an unrelated story, he shared with me something he had found in Easton in 2016. Three years later, it still troubled him. He told me the story and I asked him to email me the photos he took. In the email, Smith wrote, “Attached are photos I took of 7 dead red fox that had been dumped on the road berm in the parking lot of Seth Forest, which is located on Dover Neck Road, Easton, MD. I had first observed these dead foxes on Feb. 22, 2016 and realized they might be somehow related to the then recent spate of poisoned eagles near Federalsburg, since a similar incident occurred in Dorchester County back in the early 1990s (raccoon carcasses laced with carbofuran – investigated by feds). I had called NRP to report the carcasses and met out there on Feb. 25 with Officer Ruscitti . These photos are from that day. I had hoped they would take them to a lab for analysis for poison. I received a call back later that day from NRP saying that those carcasses had been reported to them 1 month prior and they had all been shot. I was told there was no need for further action. I don’t think the carcasses were checked to see if they had been baited with poison (carbofuran, etc.). They were not placed in the open where you would expect someone to do if they were trying to get eagles and other scavengers to feed on them. So maybe this was just a bad coincidence…”
Seven dead foxes in a place that is an epicenter for eagle poisonings and seen by Smith two days after the poisoning incident in Federalsburg – to make matters even more confusing and concerning, NRP told me they had no record of it. It turns out Officer Ruscitti is with Talbot County Sheriff’s Department. Maybe NRP was unavailable and Talbot County Sheriff’s Department responded. Regardless, remember that the USFWS wasn’t always forthcoming with information about investigations with state and local partners. At this point in 2016, it wouldn’t have been surprising if some Talbot County law enforcement officers were completely unaware of the history of the use of carbofuran to kill wildlife in their own county. Foxes are considered nuisance wildlife by some and it can’t be ruled out this might’ve been “just a bad coincidence,” as Smith stated in his email. There’s only one certainty with this incident of seven dead foxes dumped in Easton and a state wildlife ecologist that thought it could be related to the Federalsburg incident – we’ll never know if those seven foxes had both bullets and carbofuran in their bodies.
Is There Hope for Prosecution in Any of These Recent Delmarva Cases?
In March of 2016, less than a month after 13 dead bald eagles were discovered in Federalsburg, Md., several dead eagles were found in Sussex County, De. My most FOIA request for information in this case was denied (in August 2019) because of concern it would jeopardize law enforcement proceedings – same as previous denials. My previous reporting shared a connection I’ve made in two of the closed cases (Federalsburg 2016 and Easton 2017) and one of the cases that happened in 2019. I haven’t yet found connections with the case in Sussex County, De., but that doesn’t rule out there is one.
We don’t know the status with law enforcement proceedings in the 2019 cases in Chestertown and what the press release referred to as Cordova. Based on my past history with FOIAs submitted, it’s too early to submit requests for these cases.
Where’s the carbofuran coming from?
While carbofuran is banned in the United States, it’s not banned in other countries. It’s also possible old stock is still around.
Should we care?
Bald eagles were on the brink of extinction because of another pesticide called DDT, which weakened eggshells and didn’t allow for eaglets to hatch. DDT was banned by the EPA in 1972 and it took years to bring bald eagles, and other birds of prey, affected by the pesticide, back. During the years between banning of DDT and recovery of eagle populations, it wasn’t common to see eagles is the wild.
Every one of these mass poisoning events, that I’m aware of, has happened during bald eagle nesting season. What that means is more birds were likely impacted than what has been documented. It takes two adult eagles to protect eggs, then feed and protect young eaglets. Without both parents, whatever is in the nest doesn’t have a chance. With some of these cases, other eagles were found alive and sent to rehabilitation facilities. That means those birds weren’t able to get back to nests they may have been attending to. With so many dead and poisoned eagles in a relatively small section of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, that is generations of bald eagles impacted.
There’s also a human component. Use of carbofuran around farm fields could very well result in humans being poisoned too – those using it to poison wildlife and those who might be consuming it. Keep in mind, this is an extremely toxic pesticide being used in and around fields where crops are growing and where farm animals are being raised, which ultimately yield food to be consumed by people and animals.
What’s Being Done in Maryland to Stop This?
Following my reporting in 2018 that carbofuran was responsible for the 13 dead bald eagles in Federalsburg in 2016 and five dead bald eagles in Easton in 2017, Jason Schellhardt, spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA), indicated MDA would add a presentation to the recertification process for licensed pesticide applicators.
In September 2018, I had the opportunity to ask MDA Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder about other ideas being considering – if it wasn’t licensed pesticide applicators doing these poisonings. At that time, I hadn’t yet known of the relationship between these poisonings and captive-raised ducks on farms, or that RSA permit owners weren’t necessarily the property owner, so I asked specifically asked about farm owners. He said the best way to address it would be with educational information and programs, not just to farmers on the Eastern Shore, but around the state.
I reached back out to MDA to find out what had been done by the agency between that interview and the six bald eagles and one great horned owl being poisoned and dying in Chestertown in March 2019 and the three bald eagles poisoned and one dying in what officials referred to as Cordova in April 2019.
Schellhardt responded, “our pesticide regulation employees directly communicate with farmers on a regular basis through inspections, outreach events, etc. During this time period, our staff made a concerted effort to inform farmers of the poisonings and reiterate the illegal status of carbofuran. We are continuing with this approach, in addition to the press release and pesticide enforcement advisory that went out following the most recent poisoning incidents.”
In fact, a significant change did occur in the wake of those two most recent mass poisoning cases – one that Schellhardt indicated. A joint press release from NRP and USFWS went out on May 1, 2019 and another joint press release from DNR and MDA, went out on May 10, 2019 that included the pesticide enforcement advisory. This was a coordinated effort by USFWS, MDA and DNR/NRP to educate the public about these carbofuran poisonings and quite a lot of information was provided, including laws (state and federal) surrounding the cases, facts about carbofuran, including how to properly dispose of it and a reward offered. This release of information was a big change from many years of secrecy about carbofuran being used to kill eagles.
One small problem though – while the Federalsburg case was mentioned in the joint release from USFWS and NRP, the Easton case wasn’t. This resulted in quite a few media entities not reporting about that case and many specifying the wrong number of bald eagles killed in mass poisoning events since 2016.
While it was a refreshing change to see state and federal agencies sharing information about these cases, a mass poisoning event which killed five bald eagles in Easton in 2017 should not have been overlooked by them or anyone else reporting about these incidents. The Easton case had been closed by the USFWS. The details of carbofuran use in this case were initially reported by me in the summer of 2018, then The Washington Post and other media entities on the Eastern Shore, after I shared the information with them. It was a missed opportunity between federal and state agencies to relay correct information about the poisonings and how many there have been in recent history.
After the 2019 poisonings, Governor Hogan stated in a Facebook post, “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.” After that post, I asked Governor Hogan’s office if an executive order that bans the possession of carbofuran was a possibility. That question was referred by the Governor’s office to MDA and Schellhardt responded, “We are looking into it, but it is our understanding that a ban on possession would require legislation from the General Assembly.” After a few months went by, I asked again and again, received the same answer.
I reached out to two elected officials from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, who represent areas that have had mass poisoning events. I spoke, at length, to State Sen. Adelaide C. Eckardt (R), District 37B – she said her office would be getting word out to her constituents, including hunt clubs and farmers, about these cases and the dangers of carbofuran. Messages left for State Sen. Steve Hershey (R), District 36, never received response.
Stopping these poisoning cases from happening could certainly be helped by education and outreach efforts, people speaking up about known cases of intentional poisoning of wildlife, laws that prevent it from happening, enforcement of laws, appropriate funding and staffing of agencies that enforce wildlife laws and investigate wildlife crimes, the prosecution of those who commit wildlife crimes and communication between the USFWS with state and other agencies.
People speaking up about intentional poisoning of wildlife could lead investigators to suspects they weren’t aware of and/or help them make cases that can be brought to justice. Those who investigate these cases, refer to the site of a mass mortality incidents as the “circle of death” – there are the animals initially poisoned, surrounded by secondary and, in some cases, tertiary, poisoned wildlife. While many of these recent cases we know about it, there is every possibility there have been more we aren’t aware of.
Kuncir told me a law banning the possession of carbofuran could help law enforcement. When changes are made to federal laws, such as pesticide bans, states have the right to enact their own laws that are as or more stringent than the federal laws. When carbofuran was banned at the federal level, most states, including Maryland, never enacted legislation to make the possession of these pesticides a crime. You’re not allowed to buy, sell or use carbofuran in Maryland, but you can have it – as long as it’s stored and labeled properly. In the absence of the proverbial smoking gun – observing someone putting bait out, finding the bait and/or dead wildlife, which has tested positive for carbofuran, a charge of possession could be the only hope for prosecution in some cases. When there is prosecution for using carbofuran to kill wildlife, in addition to fines, tying punishment to hunting, fishing and trapping privileges, as was done with the father and son in Wisconsin, could go far in convincing others not to do the same.
Education is critical and throughout the year. If these poisonings are still happening because of protecting ducks on RSAs, as Kuncir indicated why they happened in the past, MDA shouldn’t be the only state agency disseminating information about this issue. This would fall under the territory of DNR and NRP too. Remember the farm owner isn’t necessarily the RSA permit holder. We know these incidents are happening on and near farms. We know farms are used for hunting – even when they’re not RSAs. We also know many of them are happening during or pretty close to hunting season. And while farmers might be getting information directly from MDA now about carbofuran and where to dispose of it, RSA permit holders, hunting guides, outfitters and retailers are not. Whether they’re getting it from farmers or media reports is unknown. Educational information released to the public only after poisoning incidents is a reactive, rather than proactive approach.
The poisoning of wildlife in Maryland with carbofuran has been happening for years. This dirty little secret is no longer a secret and that the “carbo wars” are continuing a decade after carbofuran was banned is not a good image for Maryland. This is our national symbol.
Do you know who’s responsible for any of these cases? There are rewards. I’ve been told death by carbofuran isn’t pretty and the animals suffer. If you have any ideas at all who might be doing this, email investigators at firstname.lastname@example.org or call/text 443-433-4112.
Donna L. Cole is an award-winning journalist who works for WNAV News in Annapolis. In June 2019, for her reporting work on the bald eagle poisonings, Donna was awarded the Dateline Award for Excellence in Local Journalism / Investigative Journalism from the Society of Professional Journalists Washington, D.C. Chapter and the Outstanding Enterprise Reporting award from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association.