Someone shot and killed a rare Florida panther, an endangered species that has clawed its way back from the brink of extinction only to suffer a record number of deaths last year along Florida roads.
A driver initially reported the dead panther about 8:30 p.m. March 22 as a roadkill along a remote stretch of Immokalee Road between the Ave Maria development and Immokalee. But wildlife investigators later determined that the 5-year-old male had been shot. They found no evidence of a vehicle strike.
Federal and state wildlife officials are offering a $5,000 reward to anyone with information.
“We just really need someone who has any information to step up and help us solve this crime,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Ken Warren.
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Last year, 33 panthers died, most after being struck by vehicles along roads. Already 16 have died this year, a rate that could lead to an even higher number of deaths in 2015.
Florida panthers nearly disappeared in the 1970s, when the number dwindled to just two dozen in Southwest Florida. In a desperate fight to save them, biologists let loose eight female Texas cougars, a close cousin, and hoped for some cat chemistry. The experiment worked — biologists now believe there could be up to 180 panthers, most living in Collier and Hendry counties, that hold the last, largest tracts of their native habitat.
Biologists continue to keep close tabs on the panthers. They are now tracking 26 with radio collars — the dead panther was not wearing a collar. And the state maintains a running tab of deaths, births and depredations on their panther net website.
The growing numbers have led to a squeeze in territory. Male panthers can range up to 200 square miles, and most of last year’s road kills were males, suggesting they were seeking new ranges.
Ranchers also have increasingly complained about panthers attacking livestock. Since the beginning of 2014, 11 calves, 22 goats and seven sheep were reported killed, along with some dogs and miniature horses. Hunters also say the number of deer are down. At a meeting last year with federal and state officials who run the recovery program, dozens showed up to challenge counting methods and call for relaxing protective measures.
Panther shootings are rare but not unheard of. Since 2008, five panthers have been shot — one with a bow and arrow, Warren said. All but one died. The surviving panther was left blind and is now cared for at the Naples Zoo, he said.
Harming a panther is a crime, punishable by up to a year in prison and fines of $100,000 per person. Anyone with information can call a 24-hour hotline at 888-404-3922. Anonymous tips can be emailed to Tip@MyFWC.com.