Carbofuran has killed at least 30 bald eagles in Maryland since 2009, when it was federally banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Though it’s illegal to use, buy or sell it in the U.S., it’s not illegal to possess it in Maryland – a loophole that has had deadly consequences for eagles, owls and other wildlife.
- 2009 – Cordova farm (2 eagles)
- 2012 – Easton farm (2 eagles)
- 2014 – Preston farm ( 1 eagle)
- 2016 – Federalsburg farm (13 eagles)
- 2017 – Easton farm (5 eagles)
- 2019 – Chestertown farm (6 eagles + 1 great horned owl)
- 2019 – Cordova farm (1 eagle)
All of these known incidents have happened during bald eagle nesting season. Because it takes two, adult bald eagles to protect and feed eaglets in a nest and also because adults can pass on the poison to their young, it’s highly likely more than 30 eagles have been killed by carbofuran in Maryland since 2009.
According to retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Special Agent Frank Kuncir, 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.
Kuncir believes a state law that would make the possession of carbofuran illegal would be helpful for law enforcement, as well as the wildlife being targeted. Interview clip is below.
While bald eagles are no longer on the endangered species list, they’re still federally protected, as was the great horned owl that was also poisoned in a mass mortality carbofuran case in Chestertown in 2019.
A Dagsboro, De. eagle mass mortality case from 2016 also illuminated the problem of stockpiled carbofuran – old stock still being used. Carbofuran was sold under the trade name Furadan. See evidence photos below from the Dagsboro case – these were obtained by WNAV through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the USFWS.
Despite having the evidence, the USFWS could not or did not prosecute anyone for the Dagsboro case. Like Maryland, the possession of carbofuran is not illegal in Delaware. Timing might’ve been another factor – this case and resulting investigation spanned the years between 2016 to 2020, when attempts were being made at the federal level to weaken the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
In the Dagsboro case, according to USFWS records, the carbofuran was voluntarily given up for safe disposal. An illegal kill trap was seized.
These cases have not always been about bald eagles and they have happened beyond the Delmarva Peninsula. There’ve been prosecutions too.
In October 1999, according to the USFWS, over 26,000 migratory birds were found dead on a farm property in Illinois. Those birds included 20,094 red-winged blackbirds, 5,970 brown-headed cowbirds, 887 common grackles and 10 horned larks.
According to the USFWS, “the farmer pleaded guilty in federal court to two charges: unlawful and unpermitted taking of 26,961 migratory birds in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and application of a registered pesticide classified for restricted use in a manner inconsistent with its labeling, a violation of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. On September 13,2000, the defendant was sentenced to three years probation and fined $4,000 for the Migratory Bird Treaty Act violation and $1,000 for pesticide misuse.
The carbofuran cases in Maryland seem more targeted at eagles, which have a propensity, being birds of prey, to prey upon other animals, including ducks. 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 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.
All of these cases in Maryland have happened on or in very close proximity to farms, where food for people and animals is produced. Carbofuran can seep into the ground, wells and irrigation systems, but Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) never checked the properties for carbofuran contamination of soil, water or wells because no state or federal agency requested them to do so.
“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 .”
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 FOIA request to the USFWS.
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.”
In many of these cases in Maryland, it’s been Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) officers who arrived on the scene first. They’ve not had poisoned wildlife response training – USFWS agents do have this training. This lack of training might put NRP officers and their K9s (if used) at risk for accidental poisoning.
A hearing is scheduled for House Bill 1025 on February 24 at 1:30 p.m.
Donna L. Cole is a reporter for WNAV News in Annapolis. For her reporting about the carbofuran-related bald eagle cases, she received the Society of Professional Journalists Washington, D.C. Pro Chapter 2019 and 2020 Dateline Award for Investigative Journalism, the 2018 Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association Award for Outstanding Enterprise Reporting and the 2019 Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association Award for Outstanding In-Depth Reporting.