FORT MYERS — A Golden Gate Estates man who admitted to shooting an endangered Florida panther in 2009 was sentenced Thursday, but an environmental group said the punishment was too light.
Todd Alan Benfield, 45, must spend 60 days confined to home before serving weekend jail time totaling 30 days and serving three years of probation. His hunting license is revoked during his probation time, according to the sentence handed down by U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Polster Chappell in Fort Myers.
Benfield also must pay a $5,000 fine, pay $5,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, work 200 hours of community service at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge or Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, publish a public apology in the Naples Daily News and forfeit the compound bow, arrows and ladder tree stand he used to kill the panther along Woodland Grade in rural Collier County.
In a statement attached to a May plea agreement, Benfield said he shot the panther from his tree stand because he thought it was interfering with his deer hunting. He goes on to apologize for any negative publicity the shooting brings to hunting.
“Killing the Florida panther was not a solution, and I am very sorry for what I did,” Benfield says in the statement.
An environmental group founded by hunters has called for a stiffer penalty, including lifetime revocation of Benfield’s hunting license and a $100,000 fine.
“I’m glad he got what he got and I wish he’d gotten more,” Florida Wildlife Federation President Manley Fuller said Thursday.
Benfield’s sentence was more severe than the sentences in the cases of three other men charged with killing a Florida panther since 1983. In the most famous case, Seminole Chief James Billie was acquitted.
In 1985, Elmer Brooker, of West Palm Beach, was sentenced to five years of probation and was fined $5,000. His hunting privileges were suspended during his probation.
The shooter of a panther in south Georgia was sentenced last year to two years probation and was fined $2,000. His hunting privileges also were suspended.
Under the federal Endangered Species Act, killing a Florida panther carries a maximum penalty of one year in federal prison, a $100,000 fine and forfeiture of hunting equipment used in the crime.
Scientists say as many as 160 panthers are left in the wild, rebounding from a low of about 30 animals in the 1980s thanks to a genetic restoration project.