Wednesday, June 20, 2018
News Roundup

Young Florida panther shot dead on Big Cypress Preserve

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.

Comments
Column: I survived a suicide attempt and here’s what you should know

Column: I survived a suicide attempt and here’s what you should know

Twenty-five years ago, I was a reporter at WTSP-TV, out in the field covering Tampa Bay’s Independence Day celebrations. I expected an easy assignment talking about families and fireworks. Then the newsroom called with an urgent message: I needed to ...
Updated: 0 minutes ago
For starters: Rays at Astros, with a different look

For starters: Rays at Astros, with a different look

Rays manager Kevin Cash's commitment to rest players and rotate playing time resulted in an unusual lineup combination for tonight's series and roadtrip finale vs. the Astros.Such as having rookie Willy Adames at second base, Joey Wendle at third, Ca...
Updated: 9 minutes ago
15 arrested in Hillsborough construction fraud sting, one for the eighth time

15 arrested in Hillsborough construction fraud sting, one for the eighth time

TAMPA — The contractors arriving at the Brandon home thought they were meeting with a potential customer. They were wrong.In fact, the would-be clients were undercover detectives and the contractors, lacking a license to ply their trade, left the hom...
Updated: 23 minutes ago
As Border Patrol searches its buses, Greyhound is pulled into immigration uproar

As Border Patrol searches its buses, Greyhound is pulled into immigration uproar

He was a 12-year Miami resident originally from Trinidad, taken off a Greyhound bus in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, by U.S. Border Patrol agents in January.She was a 60-something Jamaican national who had just met her granddaughter for the first time, w...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Phil Mickelson apologizes four days after hitting moving ball at U.S. Open

Phil Mickelson apologizes four days after hitting moving ball at U.S. Open

NEW YORK — Phil Mickelson has apologized four days after intentionally violating golf rules by hitting a moving ball on the green at the U.S. Open, saying his frustration got the best of him. The apology came Wednesday in a statement released by his ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Could Lucky’s Market move in to Clearwater’s old Albertsons?

Could Lucky’s Market move in to Clearwater’s old Albertsons?

Lucky’s Market is considering a move in to the old Albertsons box space in Clearwater, according to preliminary plans filed with the city. Lucky’s master broker, Rick Lewellyn, was listed on an agenda as discussing renovating the existing property wi...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Couple leased someone else’s home to 12 families at same time, Largo police say

Couple leased someone else’s home to 12 families at same time, Largo police say

LARGO — At least 12 families leased the same Largo home at the same time and lost as much as $4,300 each in a fraud scheme run by a couple who portrayed themselves as owners of the property, Largo police said.Police learned of the scheme Tuesday afte...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Developer proposes Sprouts Farmers Market for Land O’Lakes

Developer proposes Sprouts Farmers Market for Land O’Lakes

LAND O’LAKES – A Sarasota developer is proposing to turn a vacant Winn-Dixie store in central Pasco into a Sprouts Farmers Market or similar specialty grocer.Benderson Development filed preliminary plans Monday with Pasco County to redevelop the form...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Kevin Knox poised to become Tampa Bay’s highest NBA draft pick

Kevin Knox poised to become Tampa Bay’s highest NBA draft pick

Kevin Knox Sr. was watching the NFL draft 24 years ago when the phone rang. Buffalo coach Marv Levy was on the other line."Marv said they were taking me," said Knox Sr., a standout receiver at FSU.Soon after, Knox Sr. saw his name scroll across ESPN'...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Lawsuit against St. Pete alleges racial motivation in water official’s departure

Lawsuit against St. Pete alleges racial motivation in water official’s departure

ST. PETERSBURG — A former top ranking official in the city’s Water Resources Department is suing the city over his departure, claiming it was racially motivated.Dwight Wilson, the department’s former assistant director, says in the June 12 lawsuit th...
Updated: 2 hours ago