Another endangered Florida panther has been shot dead. And for the first time, the illegal killing took place in what's supposed to be a protected place for wildlife, the Big Cypress National Preserve east of Naples.
This particular panther was found dead Saturday afternoon amid the slash pine and saw palmetto in the Turner River Unit of Big Cypress, 7 miles north of U.S. 41, preserve spokesman Bob DeGross said Monday. The body of the 18-month-old female was lying about 50 yards away from one of the primary off-road vehicle trails.
"It's a fairly remote area of the preserve," DeGross said.
Hunting is allowed in that area, and here and there are backcountry hunt camps grandfathered in when the preserve was created by President Richard Nixon in 1974. The panther was found by people who own a camp in that area, DeGross said.
Now investigators from the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are going over the scene for clues and appealing to the public for help in solving the crime, which carries a potential penalty of up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Federal officials say they are offering a reward, although they have not specified an amount.
Meanwhile the body of the panther is being shipped to the Fish and Wildlife Service's forensics laboratory in Ashland, Ore., for examination — a sign, DeGross said, of how seriously this crime is being viewed.
About 20 of the 100 to 160 panthers roaming South Florida's swampy wilderness wear radio collars so biologists can track their movements. This panther had no collar, but it was one that was known to biologists.
"This is a cat that we handled in the den as a kitten," DeGross said. In June 2012, he said, biologists pulled it and its male sibling out, examined their health and then implanted a microchip for identification purposes. That's how they know the dead panther is the one they called FK 368.
As an adolescent nearing breeding age, the 18-month-old was most likely looking to stake out territory separate from its mother, FP 162, when it was killed, DeGross said.
The Big Cypress preserve, which serves as the headwaters of the western Everglades, was established to protect it from development.
Because hunters were crucial to creating the preserve, they have been allowed to continue hunting across its 729,000 acres. Thus it's not unusual for people to carry guns around on the property.
While this is the first panther shot in the Big Cypress, it's at least the fourth one killed under mysterious circumstances in the past four years.
The first was in February 2009. Like this weekend's panther, this one was found dead in Collier County. Federal officials have not disclosed 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 April 2009, a female panther was found shot in rural Hendry County, just outside the Big Cypress boundary. At 2 years old, the dead panther had been just about ready to breed for the first time. No further information has been disclosed in that death either.
Then, in October 2009, a panther was found dead near the Ave Maria development in Collier County. A three-year investigation led to the conviction of a bow hunter named Todd "Scuttlebutt" Benfield, who in court admitted shooting the panther with an arrow "because I thought the Florida panther was competing and interfering with my hunting."
Shortly after the panther was found dead, Benfield told a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigator "I don't like those damn things," noting that they had been killing some ranchers' calves and "they are going to hurt someone."
Normally panthers eat deer and hogs, with the occasional raccoon or opossum. But as people have crowded into what was once panther habitat, panthers began eating domestic cats, goats and some cattle.
The most famous person to be charged with killing a panther was James Billie, chief of the Seminole tribe. Billie shot and skinned a panther in 1983, saying he did it as part of a religious ritual. He was acquitted by a jury after his attorney raised questions about genetics and whether the panther was really a panther.
In 2011, a Georgia deer hunter pleaded guilty to killing a panther that had roamed so far from South Florida that it had crossed the state line. That hunter was sentenced to two years of probation, during which he could not hunt anywhere, and fined $2,000.
Benfield, the bow hunter who pleaded guilty in 2012, was sentenced to 60 days of home confinement, 30 days behind bars, three years of probation, a $5,000 fine and a requirement he donate $5,000 to a wildlife-related charity, plus 200 hours of community service. He also was banned from hunting for three years. He had to forfeit his bow, arrows and tree stand and write a public apology that was published in the Naples Daily News.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter via @craigtimes.