By ERIC STAATS (Contact)
Originally published 6:30 p.m., Friday, June 5, 2009
Updated 7:44 p.m., Friday, June 5, 2009
NAPLES — A search is on for the killer of a female Florida panther found shot in Hendry County, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday.
Spokesman Ken Warren said the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are investigating the incident.
He said the cat, which is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and state law, was found April 21 on private property north of the Big Cypress National Preserve.
The Fish and Wildlife Service plans to announce a reward early next week for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the shooter, including money from the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Defenders of Wildlife, representatives of those groups said Friday.
Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton called the shooting a "horrible act" and thanked the landowner for reporting the discovery of the panther so authorities could pursue the case.
Defenders of Wildlife plans to contribute $1,500 in reward money, that group’s Florida program director Laurie Macdonald said Friday.
"This is really distressing," she said, adding that she had heard reports that the panther had been shot in the head.
Warren said he could not confirm details of the shooting. Conservation Commission spokeswoman Gabriella Ferraro referred questions to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Florida panthers are making their last stand in Southwest Florida, where scientists estimate between 100 and 120 of the cats live in the wild.
In a June 1998 fact sheet about the Florida panther, the Fish and Wildlife Service reported that four panthers are known to have died from gunshot wounds between 1978 and 1984.
In one high-profile case, Seminole Indian chief James Billie was charged with shooting a panther on the Seminole’s Big Cypress Reservation in 1983.
Billie’s first federal trial on charges of violating the Endangered Species Act ended in a mistrial. Prosecutors dropped the charges after Billie’s state trial ended with a not-guilty verdict in 1987.
In 1998, one of eight Texas cougars brought to South Florida to rebuild the panther population, was found shot to death in a citrus grove south of Interstate 75 about three miles east of the Naples toll booth.
At the time of that shooting, under a Florida look-alike law, shooting a cougar carried the same penalty as killing a panther — up to five years in jail and up to a $5,000 fine.
Killing a Florida panther carries federal criminal penalties of up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine for individuals and $200,000 for groups, Warren said.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org