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  1. Environment

Florida panthers are endangered and protected. But more are being shot than originally thought.

This X-ray shows a bullet fragment found in a panther that was killed by another panther in Hendry County in February. [Courtesy of Mark Cunningham]
Published May 20

Mark Cunningham found another one in February.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission veterinarian X-rayed the carcass of a Florida panther that had recently been killed by another panther in Hendry County. The X-ray showed a bullet fragment in the dead cat, indicating that yet again someone had shot Florida's state animal.

Since 1978, 36 Florida panthers have been shot by people wielding pistols, shotguns or rifles, Cunningham told a conference on veterinary forensics meeting at a St. Pete Beach resort earlier this month. Of that number, 13 panthers have been killed, he said, and another two were so severely injured they had to be permanently removed from the wild and kept in captivity.

"Illegal kills represent a much more important mortality factor" than biologists originally believed, Cunningham said.

And as the panther population and the human population are both expanding in Florida, he said, "we could expect the illegal take (of panthers) due to these human conflicts to increase as well."

Wounding or killing a Florida panther violates federal law because it's an endangered species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which investigates crimes involving endangered wildlife, has kept a lid on much of the information regarding the number of panthers that have been shot, the circumstances under which they were killed and in some cases even the location where those shootings occurred. Beyond offering a reward in some cases, the federal agency has not asked the public for assistance in solving these crimes, as some police agencies do with unsolved murders.

"It really does seem that once a panther has been shot, it goes into a Fish and Wildlife Service investigation file and it's very hard to find out whatever happened to it," said Elizabeth Fleming of the Defenders of Wildlife Florida office in St. Petersburg. She serves on the federal panther species recovery committee.

She said she suspects the number shot is higher than what Cunningham reported because not all dead panthers are found by the state wildlife commission's biologists.

Cunningham's presentation marks the first time much of the information about shootings has been made public. Fish and Wildlife Service officials declined to comment about what he said.

The agency has successfully closed only four cases of panthers that were shot dead.

The first person accused of the crime, Seminole Indian Tribe chairman James C. Billie, was acquitted of killing one in 1983 in what he said was a religious ritual. A federal trial ended with a hung jury. Then, when he was tried on a state charge, his defense raised questions about whether he had killed a purebred panther or a cross-breed not protected under the law. That prompted the jury to vote for acquittal. Federal prosecutors then dropped their charge.

The second man taken to court for a panther killing was a deer hunter named Elmer Booker, who in 1985 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.

In 2008, a Georgia deer hunter shot a panther that had roamed so far from South Florida that it had crossed the state line. He pleaded guilty to the crime in 2010 and was sentenced to two years of probation, during which he could not hunt anywhere, and fined $2,000.

A year later, a panther was found dead near the Ave Maria development in Collier County. That one had been shot with an arrow.

A three-year investigation led to the conviction of a bowhunter named Todd "Scuttlebutt" Benfield, who in court admitted shooting the panther with his bow and arrow "because I thought the Florida panther was competing and interfering with my hunting." Benfield was sentenced to 60 days' home confinement, 30 days' of intermittent custody, three years' probation and a $5,000 fine.

Cunningham said 10 of the projectiles found in panther carcasses have been from high-velocity weapons such as a hunting rifle, and another nine were from low-velocity weapons, such as a pistol. Nine were shotgun pellets and seven were from unknown weapons. One, of course, was hit by an arrow.

Just under a quarter of the panthers that were shot were killed during hunting season, he said, making it likely they were shot by hunters who were supposed to be after deer, turkey or hogs. Another quarter were the result of what he called "suspected human/wildlife conflict," because they occurred where development bumped up against the remaining wilderness.

About 8 percent were what he called "suspected intentional kills." He said that included one panther that someone had treed, most likely with a pack of dogs, and then shot from the ground, judging by the bullet trajectory.

Longtime South Florida hunter Franklin Adams said there used to be hunters who were eager to take a potshot at a panther, but those folks "either died out or moved to Georgia."

"You don't hear much talk any more about 'I'm gonna shoot the damn thing,'" said Adams, a board member of the Florida Wildlife Federation. Instead, he said, now if a hunter happens to spot a panther "we're thrilled to death."

The Florida panther population had dwindled to no more than 30 animals by 1995, in part because of genetic defects caused by inbreeding. In a bold experiment, state officials approved bringing in eight female cougars from Texas to breed with the remaining male panthers in the wild. Five of those eight successfully produced healthy kittens, sparking a population increase.

Florida now has more than 200 panthers roaming the wild, but their expanding population has brought them into conflict with people who own chickens and livestock .

One of the Texas cougars brought in to breed, Cunningham noted, was killed by someone with a gun. The shooter was never caught.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

Editor's note: Veterinarian Mark Cunningham works for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Gainesville. This story has been updated to reflect the correct affiliation.

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