Monday, June 15, 2009

Florida panther killer will probably never face prosecution

State, federal investigators offer reward for Florida panther killed in Hendry County
By Craig Pittman, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Thursday, June 11, 2009

For two months, state and federal wildlife investigators have been trying to figure out who shot a Florida panther and left its carcass to rot.

In cases like this, investigators collect evidence, bring in forensic experts, question potential witnesses.

"We treat it just like a murder victim," said Col. Julie Jones, law enforcement chief for the state wildlife commission.

None of that has proved fruitful thus far. So this week, hoping to coax someone to come forward, officials offered a $15,000 reward.

But history isn't on their side.

The shooting occurred sometime during the week of April 13 in rural Hendry County, just outside the boundary of the Big Cypress National Preserve. The victim, found on April 21, turned out to be a young female, about 2 years old and ready to breed for the first time.

"Obviously the loss of a reproductive female is not a good thing," said Dave Onorato, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's panther section.

There are about 100 panthers in South Florida, evenly divided between males and females. That one shooting wiped out 2 percent of the female panther population, Onorato said.

For 51 years, it's been illegal to shoot a Florida panther. The early settlers called it a "tiger" or a "catamount." They feared the animals so much they usually shot them on sight. By 1958, though, the panther had become so scarce that state officials said no more hunting.

Yet even after Florida panthers were put on the endangered species list in 1966, even after they were declared Florida's official state animal in 1981, people still occasionally shot one.

Most panther poachers have successfully avoided any consequences.

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 of Indians, who shot and skinned a panther in 1983. Billie said he did it as part of a tribal ritual.

At trial, his defense attorney argued that there were too many genetic questions about what was a wild panther and what wasn't. No one could prove what he killed was a wild panther, his attorney said. A state jury acquitted him in 1987, and federal officials dropped the remaining charges.

The second poacher hauled into court was a deer hunter named Elmer Booker. In 1984, he was hiding about 12 to 15 feet up a tree in a Palm Beach County wildlife management area, armed with a muzzle-loader, when a female panther walked by. Booker said he feared the panther would attack him, so he shot it.

Although he pleaded guilty, Circuit Judge Carl Harper refused to send him to the hoosegow.

"Ain't no way in the world I'm going to put you in jail," the judge, an avid hunter, told Booker, then sentenced him to probation.

Still, times and attitudes change, state officials say. The reward money in this case came not only from the Humane Society and Defenders of Wildlife, but also such pro-hunting groups as the Big Cypress Sportsmen's Alliance and the Everglades Coordinating Council.

The reward poster features a photo of the dead panther. The animal lies on its left side, showing off its tawny fur and large paws. It wore no radio collar — most panthers don't have them — so biologists will have some difficulty tracking back on its travels.

Wildlife officials won't release details such as who found the body or what caliber of bullet killed it, or discuss the status of the investigation. But when confronted by similar crime scenes involving bears and other animals shot by poachers, investigators follow procedures familiar to anyone who watches TV cop shows.

They document the scene with photos, collect shell casings, look for tracks and tire marks. They ship the carcass to a trained forensics expert to dissect it. They send the bullet to a ballistics lab.

And they track down and question witnesses: the owner of the land where the body was found, neighbors, hunters who might frequent the area. Posting a reward often helps with older, colder cases like this one.

"We've worked some bear cases that are months old," Col. Jones said. "We go talk to the members of a hunt club, and finally one will say, 'I know what really happened.' If you look them in the eye, it's hard for them to lie."

Cars tend to be deadlier than guns for panthers. Onorato, the biologist, said the panther shot in April is one of eight killed this year. Six were run over. The other was killed fighting with another panther over what's left of their dwindling habitat.

Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or


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