National News

Banned Pesticide Killed 13 Bald Eagles at Maryland Farm

Posted June 21, 2018 9:54 p.m. EDT

When 13 bald eagles were found dead on a farm in Maryland two years ago, the cause of death was a mystery.

Details of a six-month investigation, disclosed last week, show that the eagles died from ingesting a highly toxic pesticide banned in the United States, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed Thursday.

No arrests were ever made, and investigators have closed the case.

The bodies of the birds were discovered in February 2016 scattered on farmland in Federalsburg in the largest known die-off of bald eagles in the state in three decades.

The investigation results were first reported by the Annapolis radio station WNAV, which obtained them through a Freedom of Information Act request and shared them with The Washington Post.

Investigators determined the cause of death was poisoning by carbofuran, a toxic pesticide, said Catherine Hibbard, the wildlife service spokeswoman.

“It definitely was a human cause. This is not a natural cause of death here,” Hibbard said. “It probably wasn’t intentional to kill the eagles, but there was some target for the pesticide.”

The bald eagle, chosen as a symbol for the Great Seal of the United States by Congress in 1782, was at risk of extinction in the 1970s because of habitat destruction, poaching and poisoning by the now-banned pesticide DDT.

The bird was removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species in 2007, but it is still protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. A felony conviction under the migratory bird act is punishable by up to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

It is illegal to kill the birds, which can weigh as much as 14 pounds and spread their wings as wide as 8 feet, or to sell their nests and eggs. Two of the eagles killed in Maryland were considered mature, while the rest were younger.

In 1991, Congress banned the granular form of carbofuran, which was blamed for the death of more than 1 million birds. The Environmental Protection Agency banned its liquid use as an insecticide on food crops in 2009.

Marketed under Furudan, Curater and other names, the insecticide is also toxic to humans and other mammals, causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and difficulty breathing. Some farmers continue to use the poison illegally to kill larger predators and pests, including foxes, coyotes and raccoons.

Investigators believe at least five of the 13 eagles in Maryland ingested the toxic chemical while eating the tainted remains of a dead raccoon, Hibbard said.

She said six of the eagle carcasses were sent to a Fish and Wildlife Service forensics laboratory in Oregon for testing in 2016. Five of those were found to have undigested raccoon remains in their systems, and three of the eagles were found in Maryland with a raccoon’s skeleton and fur nearby.

Investigators could not determine a cause of death for the raccoon, but the forensics laboratory did find carbofuran in its remains, Hibbard said.