By Eric Freedman
A federal judge in Rochester, New York, has sentenced a sheep farmer to two years’ probation and a $3,500 fine in the poisoning death of a bald eagle in a field bordering his farm.
A plea deal resolved accusations that William Wentling was responsible for the deaths of two bald eagles, two red-tailed hawks and a rough-legged hawk, all protected by the Bald and Gold Eagle Protection Act, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office and the criminal complaint filed by Special Agent Lee Schneckenberger of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
One of the poisoned birds was a female bald eagle that had been incubating eggs in a nearby nest.
In March 2015, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation investigated a report of a dead bald eagle. The tipster told a state investigator that Wentling “had lost sheep to eagle predation in the past and had talked about shooting birds,” according to Schneckenberger’s affidavit.
An autopsy — technically a necropsy — found the deadly pesticide on skin and hair samples obtained from the dead eagle’s mouth. A wildlife pathologist determined that the eagle “died from scavenging” on a pesticide-laced sheep, the affidavit said.
A search found carcasses of the other protected birds
A joint state-federal investigation discovered that Wentling had shipped Carbofuran, a restricted-use pesticide with the brand name Furadan, from Pennsylvania to his farm and directed farm employees to pour it on sheep carcasses to control birds of prey.
Furadan is “known to be highly toxic to wildlife,” the prosecution said. The product label warns that “this product is toxic to fish, birds and other wildlife. Birds feeding on treated areas may be killed. Use of this product for baiting or in bait stations is strictly prohibited and can result in criminal and civil penalties.”
Bald eagles in New York suffered a precipitous decline in the first half of the 20th century, dropping from more than 70 nesting pairs in the early part of the century to only one known active nest in 1960.
The U.S. Attorney’s office said a state restoration project brought 198 nesting bald eagles from other parts of the country to New York between 1976 and 1988 and “hand-reared them to independence. Today there are more than 300 nesting pairs in the state.”
In a statement, New York Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said, “From Staten Island to Lake Champlain to Western New York, bald eagles are thriving in our state thanks to decades of restoration efforts.”
In a court filing, Wentling’s lawyer, Jon Getz of Rochester, said his client “accepts responsibility in that he directed an employee to use poison from a jug and place the poison on sheep and lamb carcasses, which were then placed around the farm. This resulted in the death of protected raptors.”
The plea agreement Wentling signed said that “by ordering the Furadan-contaminated sheep carcasses to be placed on his field and taking the remains of the birds without a permit, he acted with wanton disregard for the consequences of his actions.”
He faced a maximum of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine at sentencing by U.S. District Judge Jonathan Feldman.
In addition to the federal charge, Wentling also pleaded guilty in Steuben County to “a number of state misdemeanors based upon the same factual circumstances,” his lawyer said in a court filing.