Is it open season on Florida panthers?
In the past two years, three of the endangered panthers have been killed under mysterious circumstances, prompting federal investigations that so far have not yielded an arrest. The most recent one was discovered a week ago.
At least one of the three panthers was shot. Federal officials won't say what killed the others.
"This has us worried," said Laurie Macdonald of Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group whose Florida headquarters is in St. Petersburg.
Panther advocates fear the mysterious deaths may be connected with a growing problem of panthers killing domestic livestock such as cows and goats, said Nancy Payton of the Florida Wildlife Federation.
As the ranchers lose more cattle and other animals to the big cats, "some people finding a panther on their property may shoot them and then bury or dump them someplace else," Payton said. "There are some frustrated men out there, some frustrated ranchers and farmers."
Although Macdonald and Payton were quick to say no one should jump to conclusions, one of the most vocal ranchers says those suspicions about some frustrated person taking the law into his or her own hands might not be off-base.
"Is it possible?" asked Liesa Priddy, whose family runs the JB Ranch — and who figures to have lost 100 calves to panthers. "Sure. It is a very frustrating situation."
The most recent cat corpse, a panther designated as UCFP 155 because it had no radio-tracking collar, turned up Feb. 23 in Collier County in South Florida. Federal officials won't say anything more about it — including exactly where in Collier County it was found or how it was killed — except to say that the death is under investigation.
In October 2009, a panther was found dead near the Ave Maria development in Collier County. Federal officials said they were investigating, but would release no further details.
And in April 2009, someone shot a female panther in Hendry County. The carcass was found on a wetland mitigation bank near the Big Cypress National Preserve. Despite the offer of a $15,000 reward, federal officials have made no arrests in that case, said Ken Warren of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
And those are the ones state and federal officials know about. Payton said she fears there may be other panthers that were killed that no one has found. She calls it the "shoot and shovel" system for dealing with the big cats.
Normally panthers eat deer and hogs, with the occasional raccoon or opossum. But in recent years, as people have crowded into what was once panther habitat even as the panther population grew, biologists have discovered panthers eating domestic cats and goats.
Ranchers long suspected that the state animal was also attacking their cattle, but they had no proof — until last fall when someone wearing night-vision goggles witnessed a panther kill a calf on Priddy's ranch. Biologists captured that panther and moved it, but ranchers said that wouldn't do anything about all the other panthers they were sure were killing calves.
"We know we're having problems because we see the panthers and we know they're here, and we look at the percentage of deaths among our calves," Buzz Stoner, manager of the nearby Immokalee Ranch, said then.
Because each calf is worth between $600 and $800, the losses take a serious financial toll on the ranchers' bottom line. Although there have been talks among state officials about setting up a compensation fund to pay ranchers for any losses to panthers, so far they have not yielded any solid proposals, Priddy said.
For 53 years it's been illegal to kill a panther. But between 1978 and 2008, state records show, seven panthers were shot, five fatally. Also shot and killed: a Texas cougar brought in to refresh the panthers' genetic stock. Of those eight shootings of big cats, only two people were ever prosecuted.
The most famous was James Billie, then chief of the Seminole tribe, who shot and skinned a panther in 1983. He was acquitted by a jury after his attorney raised questions about panther genetics. The second poacher hauled into court was a deer hunter named Elmer Booker who said he shot a panther because he feared it might climb his tree stand and kill him. Although he pleaded guilty, the judge, an avid hunter, refused to put him in jail and instead sentenced him to probation.
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.