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.