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 kill a black bear. McKeithan, 54, and his pals would drive along until the dogs caught scent and started barking. Then they'd set off down a track through underbrush, chasing mammals that can reach hundreds of pounds.
All that changed in 1994, when the bear was listed as a "threatened species" and hunting it was banned in Florida.
But now experts say the population has rebounded — and on August 23, the bear was officially removed from the threatened 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." The state estimates there are about 3,000 of the creatures in Florida. Some of them are killed every year by cars or eliminated as "nuisances" from suburbs and town dumps.
McKeithan says many of the bear hunters he knew have died of old age since the ban took effect. But he remembers the old days. Once he had a track on a bear, he recalls, he 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."