By Terrence McCoy
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Like a monster truck stomping an old car, the swamp buggy crunches a sapling as it takes a sharp turn knee-deep in the mud. It comes to a halt in the heart of the 3000-acre swamp that is Big Cypress Hunting Adventures, a hunting preserve on Seminole land about 50 miles west of Fort Lauderdale. Jamie McDaniel, a professional tracker who leads hunters through the fenced-in Everglades compound in search of snipe, wild pigs, turkeys, and deer, creaks the big, green, wood-and-metal machine to a halt. He points toward something lying in a spare clearing ringed by palmettos and sawgrass.
"That kill's about a month old," he says in the quiet twang of his native north Florida. "There used to be more of a carcass left, but it looks like the buzzards got hold of it." Scattered in the mud are teeth and bones and a few wisps of fur, the remains of a prized axis, a smallish deer that hunters pay as much as $1600 for the privilege of killing. Instead of taking a bullet, though, this animal has fallen prey to one of the hunting preserve's nonpaying customers, a Florida panther.
McDaniel says the elusive, tawny-coated cats -- among the most endangered mammals in North America -- have devoured more than 150 imported deer in the five years since the Seminole Indians first opened the hunting compound. In 1993 the tribe put up $90,000 worth of nine-foot-tall fencing (it's hardly panther-proof) and started charging hunters -- many of them first-timers in search of impressive trophies -- hefty fees to riddle with bullets exotic deer trucked in from farms in Texas and northern Florida. (Since state regulations don't apply to Seminole land, hunting season is year-round on the hunting preserve.)
"The panthers are well fed here, so they stick around," explains McDaniel. "We have enough hogs and deer to sustain quite a few panthers."
The big cats, which once roamed the southeast from the tip of Florida up into North Carolina, were largely wiped out by urbanization and, in Florida in the '30s and '40s, by a state-sponsored eradication program that paid hunters $5 per panther hide. Conservation efforts following the passage of the federal Endangered Species Act of 1966 reversed that trend, though many say it came too late to save the panther. It was only in 1978 that shooting a panther became a felony and just 1982, when the cat became the official state animal, that proactive efforts to swell the panther population, thus far largely unsuccessful, began. Ironically, it took the creation of a hunting preserve, a well-stocked food source, to bring renewed vigor to panther reproduction. McDaniel says as many seven panther cubs have been born in the area in the last few years. (Panthers generally have very small litters.)
Nonetheless, earlier this month the Seminoles decided that they had stood by long enough while the panthers ate into their profits, and the tribe submitted to the state of Florida a bold request for compensation. "We figure we're feeding about a third of the state's panther population, so we think we're entitled to a third of the panther fund," says Jamie's father Jimmie McDaniel, a former state wildlife biologist who runs the hunting preserve for the Seminoles. Though a third of the $8 million in funds generated by the sales of "protect the panther" commemorative license plates comes to roughly $2.5 million -- a figure almost 20 times the value of the deer that have fallen prey to hungry panthers -- that's the amount the elder McDaniel requested at a November 5 meeting of the Florida Panther Technical Advisory Committee, a body that makes recommendations about the distribution of panther funds. At the meeting McDaniel, whose long brown hair and deeply creased face advertise his Creek Indian heritage, argued that the Seminoles, by providing a bountiful supply of food, are inadvertently promoting panther propagation.
"We weren't planning to do panther management," he says, clutching the bear claw that dangles around his neck. "As it turns out, we're doing a better job than the state." State and federal biologists have been monitoring panthers for years through radio transmitters strapped to the cats' legs but have thus far been able only to stabilize the panther population but not to increase its numbers substantially. James Billie, chairman of the Seminole Tribe, says if the state won't pay for the damage to his business caused by panthers, he is likely to take matters into his own hands. "I wouldn't be embarrassed to shoot them if they keep eating my animals," he says. Fifteen years ago he did just that, gunning down a panther while studying to become a medicine man. He was charged with killing an endangered species and, though he was acquitted and no other panther has since been shot on Seminole land, the question of how federal endangered species statutes apply to sovereign Native American territory remains an ill-defined area of the law.
While state wildlife officials acknowledge the heightened panther presence around the hunting preserve -- based on sightings, McDaniel estimates there are 12 to 15 panthers in the area (out of an estimated 30 to 60 adults statewide) -- the officials say the Seminole compensation request isn't likely to garner serious consideration. "I don't think paying for their losses is the kind of financial drain we could justify," says Darryl Land, head of panther research for the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission. "If they are going to continue to pursue this kind of operation, they will have to swallow the losses," he adds, noting that the entire annual budget for panther research is only $300,000. (The rest of the money is doled out through grants, much of it to conservation projects that have nothing to do with panthers.)