Florida Hunter Pleads Guilty of Killing Endangered Panther

FORT MYERS, Fla. – United States Attorney Robert E. O’Neill announced May 18 that Todd Alan Benfield, 45, of Naples, Fla., pled guilty to shooting and killing a Florida panther in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

Benfield faces a maximum penalty of one year in federal prison, a fine of up to $100,000, and forfeiture of weapons and other equipment used to kill the animal.

According to the plea agreement, on Oct. 8, 2009, Benfield was bow hunting along Woodland Grade, in the Golden Gate Estates area of Collier County. On that day, he used a tree stand to hunt for deer. From his tree stand, Benfield knowingly shot and killed a Florida panther with his compound bow and a 3-blade broadhead-tipped arrow. The following day, Benfield and an associate moved the panther into the Woodland Grade area, in an attempt to conceal the animal.

On Oct. 10, 2009, Benfield removed his tree stand from the area in an effort to conceal the fact that he had killed the panther. On the same date, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer located the dead panther in a section of thick vegetation, in the Woodland Grade area. The officer determined the dead panther had been dragged approximately 50 yards.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory conducted a genetics analysis of a tissue sample taken from the carcass and determined it was a Florida panther. The Endangered Species Act makes it a federal Class A misdemeanor to knowingly “take” an endangered species of wildlife.

The term “take” means to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct. The Florida panther is the last subspecies of puma still surviving in the eastern United States. Historically occurring throughout the southeastern United States, the estimated 100 to 160 panthers are found in south Florida, in less than 5 percent of their historic range.

“This investigation is the successful culmination of a three-year joint investigation led by The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement, with support from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Joint Wildlife Crime Scene Response Team, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” said Andrew Aloise, Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This investigation demonstrates our dedication and determination to solve these types of serious wildlife crimes, regardless of how long it takes. We hope this helps serve as a deterrent to help support the recovery of the Florida panther.”

Agencies involved in this investigation included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Office of Law Enforcement,