OCHOPEE, Fla. (AP) - An endangered Florida panther was been found dead of a suspected gunshot wound on federal land, authorities said.
The panther was found dead Saturday in the Big Cypress National Preserve in Collier County by some backcountry camp owners, said Bob DeGross, a spokesman for the preserve. The cat was an 18-month-old female and was found in a remote area where hunting is permitted about seven miles north of the common access point into the preserve, DeGross said. The panther was not wearing a collar.
"It's the first death of this kind in the preserve, where it's suspected that the death may have been caused by the gunshot wound," he said, adding that the panther's death was an ongoing investigation.
Preserve Superintendent Pedro Ramos said the panther's death is "a serious incident." The National Park Service was asking anyone with information about the panther's death to contact investigators at 1-800-788-0511.
Florida panthers are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The maximum sentence for the unlawful taking of a Florida panther is one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Panthers are extremely rare. The big cats once ranged across the southeastern United States, but now they are found primarily in southern Florida. Wildlife officials estimate that between 100 and 150 adult panthers remain in the wild.
Seventeen panthers have been killed in Florida so far this year. Vehicle collisions are blamed for most of the deaths.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)