It was more than 40 years ago that Charles Wurster, then a professor and researcher at the State University of New York at Stonybrook, was among those who recognized that the insecticide known as DDT was threatening the bird population and joined the charge that, eventually, led to its banishment.
Recently, Wurster, a resident of Riderwood and the author of the recently published “DDT Wars,” offered his remembrances and details of his work, and that of colleagues in the effort, as he discussed the banishment of DDT — and the role Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (PWRC) played in that process — during an address entitled, “Why and How DDT Was Banned, 1972: The Role of Patuxent and the Benefits That Followed,” part of the center’s seminar series.
A life-long birder, this part of Wurster’s career represented more of his mission.
“When I was working on my [post-doctoral thesis], doing research in the early ’60s at Dartmouth, the authorities were using DDT in elm trees and [it was] killing birds; [after college] I moved to Long Island and saw a variation on the problem. In that case, it was mainly ospreys that were laying the thin-shelled eggs” that led to birds not reaching maturation, “and the same fate later befell bald eagles, peregrine falcons and other predatory birds.”
At that point it was mid-1966, and that was when a group of scientists on Long Island filed suit against the Mosquito Commission of Long Island, due to the effects of DDT on the predatory birds.
“In two weeks, we made some progress, and the case came to trial in November,” Wurster said. “While the DDT folks had no defense, the suit was dismissed for a lack of standing; but, by that time, the commission had gotten used to using other chemicals.”
The suit was dismissed for lack of standing in Michigan, too; the same thing almost happened in Wisconsin. “However, there was language in the water laws in Wisconsin that we used in our favor,” he said, noting that all three states stopped using DDT by 1968.
By that point, a movement was brewing.
“We had incorporated the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in October 1967, and ended up fighting three government agencies [on the DDT case], though they fought well knowing that we had a legitimate case,” said Wurster, “and the court battle eventually helped lead toward the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 1970. The public was becoming very environmentally aware at that point.”
DDT was eventually banned nationally in June 1972 by William Ruckelshaus, the first head of the EPA; and the EDF is now a large international organization involved in a variety of issues that are “often to do with climate change,” Wurster said.
These events all occurred “after Patuxent Research Refuge revealed some vitally important findings, as its predatory birds were laying thin-shelled eggs that did not produce any chicks,” Wurster said. “That research proved that it was DDT that was causing the problem. They used kestrels [a common small falcon that feeds on insects] to conduct the research, which was very effective. They’re using kestrels for research at Patuxent to this day.
“Bottom line, there are 25 to 30 times the number of bald eagles, peregrine falcons and ospreys, for example, in the country now than there were 40 years ago,” he said. “All of that reproduction would not have happened had DDT not been banned; essentially, all of the aforementioned species would be gone.”
The reproduction of some species has been so significant that some are having a tougher time finding food. “The peregrine falcons are even moving into cities to feed on pigeons,” said Wurster.
That observation was echoed by John French, director for the PWRC. “People in Maryland are focused on the Chesapeake Bay, and there were almost no osprey,” he said. “Now, you see them all over the place. It’s the same thing with bald eagles and peregrine falcons. In fact, many species have come back very strong.”
Today, the approach to managing pest control for predatory birds has further evolved and is much different, said John Byrd of the Howard County Department of Recreation & Parks.
“We’re very specific in our treatments,” he said. “We use an integrated pest management approach. We don’t just spray as a prophylactic type preventative measure, [only] when there’s an infestation that we need to treat. And, if we can, we take an organic approach.
“In general, we don’t use many pesticides,” Byrd said. “We treat aquatic vegetation to manage the lake in Centennial Park, for instance, and pesticides on sidewalks or streets. Also we use very little fertilizer; we use very little of that kind of thing on turf.”
As for Wurster, his educational march continues. He’ll be promoting DDT Wars on July 20, at the Cosmos Club, in Washington, D.C.; and at the Northern Virginia Bird Club, in Arlington, on Sept. 7.