September 4, 2012 | 6:49am
Time was, Rusty McKeithan could load up a truck with four or five dogs, grab his rifle, and set out into northern Florida's Apalachicola National Forest to crawl on his hands and knees after black bears. McKeithan, 54, and his pals would drive along until the dogs caught scent of a bear and started barking. Then they'd set off down a track through underbrush, hot on the scent of mammals that can reach hundreds of pounds.
All that changed in 1994, when bear hunting was made illegal in Florida, and the bear was thereafter listed as a "threatened species."
But now experts say the population has rebounded -- and in August, the bear was officially removed from the threatened-species list. In places like South Florida's Big Cypress National Preserve, hunting them could once again become a possibility.
"Let's take all the emotion out of the damned thing," says Phil Walters, a gator-hunting tour guide based in Tampa. "We have a good number of bears in the state." Dozens of bears every year can get hit by cars or called in as nuisances.
Sportsmen say the answer is responsible hunting. McKeithan, who says many of the bear hunters he knew have died of old age since the ban took effect, believes that public perception is the only thing standing in the way of more hunting. The FWCC approved delisting the bear in June, citing population estimates around 3,000 for the whole state. The resulting rule ending the bear's "threatened" status officially went into effect on Thursday, August 23.
Once he had a track on a bear, McKeithan would strap on a pistol and crawl after the dogs through the thick vegetation that bears prefer: "The dogs would bark and basically harass the bear until it finally decided to go up a tree."
"Most people would shoot for the head," he says. "The worst thing you can have is a wounded bear. He's gonna be a bad customer."
If the ban is lifted, it's going to mean a lot more guys in orange sitting around and waiting. "People would get one now and then," he says. "They'd generally mount it like a deer, and butcher it. I've had bear meat. It's not my favorite. It looks like beef."