The 13 bald eagles were found lifeless on a Maryland farm more than two years ago, many with wings splayed, bodies intact, and talons clenched. Several were too young to have their species’ distinctive white heads. And at least six, according to a federal lab report, had ingested a highly toxic pesticide that essentially has been banned from the U.S. market, in part because it is lethal to birds.So it's probably a tragic accident, and whoever poisoned the raccoon is unlikely to come forward and face the incredibly steep fines and jail time that could be imposed.
The report, obtained by the Annapolis radio station WNAV and shared with The Washington Post, answers one big question in a mysterious wildlife crime that angered conservation organizations and stumped U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigators, who were involved because the bald eagle is a federally protected species. Tests showed that the birds were poisoned, as officials suspected. What remains unsolved is who did it.
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The chemical that killed the birds, carbofuran, came under scrutiny three decades ago for killing what the Environmental Protection Agency estimated were as many as 2 million birds a year, threatening the bald eagle’s then-fragile road to recovery. The granular form, which a Fish and Wildlife official in 1987 told The Post was the primary cause of death for bald eagles in the Chesapeake Bay region, was banned in the mid-1990s. The EPA disallowed the use of liquid carbofuran on food crops in 2009, saying the residue posed an unacceptable safety risk. Environmental groups hailed the decision as a victory for human health and for wildlife.
Today, the pesticide is off the market and the bald eagle is no longer endangered, though it is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. But carbofuran still occasionally kills birds and other wildlife in the United States. Sometimes those deaths are intentional, and sometimes they are collateral damage after an animal scavenges a poisoned carcass.
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Six of the bald eagles were sent to the Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Oregon, which determined that all had carbofuran in their stomachs or in their crops, or both. All had consumed a “recent meal,” states the report, which was obtained via a Freedom of Information Act by WNAV reporter Donna L. Cole. Five of the six had eaten raccoon, and some had eaten deer or chicken; the sixth had dined on marsh rice rat, but the report notes that any of the birds could have vomited other stomach contents.
The lab also examined the raccoon carcass and fur. It could not determine a cause of death, but carbofuran was detected on both samples. LaCorte said investigators believe the birds fed on the carcass of the raccoon, which may have been the target, and then perished.
“Bald eagles don’t normally predate on raccoons,” Gabriel said, because the latter are primarily nocturnal and eagles do most of their hunting during the day. “The raccoons probably succumbed to the carbofuran and they were out there decomposing and the bald eagles capitalized on the tainted meat.”
Although carbofuran can no longer be purchased, there is probably plenty of it still out there, Bischoff said.
“A lot of people have an old shed somewhere that’s got all this stuff in it that has been sitting there for 40 years,” Bischoff said. “They may or may not know it’s there.”
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LaCorte said he believes Edgell did not use the chemical on his property. It’s possible, he said, that one eagle picked up the raccoon carcass elsewhere and then carried it to Edgell’s property, where other eagles also consumed it.