It wasnt too long ago that the largest wild animals spotted in Dawson Forest were deer, coyotes and the occasional well-fed raccoon.
Now, a much bulkier kind of wildlife is making its presence known in the nearby wildlife management area.
About 20 years ago hunters may have harvested a single bear in a year or reported just a handful of sightings, said Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Biologist Scott Frazier. Now in Dawson Forest theyre commonly killing about 10 to 14 bears a season.
Black bears are becoming even more common in the counties just to the north.
Just ask Dahlonega resident Shannon Sexton, who came across a large fur-covered visitor rummaging through her trash early one morning last month.
Naturally she was surprised.
You dont expect to see a bear sitting at your front door in the morning, she said with a laugh.
The black bear was in search of cat food, said Sexton, and its been caught on camera returning to the scene of the crime several times since.
Though bear sightings are nothing new in North Georgia, theyre becoming more frequent lately, according to Frazier.
Starting in about the month of August, we saw a very high number of bear complaints, bear problems and bear encounters in the area, he said.
Frazier said the summer drought was probably responsible for driving ever-hungry black bears into more heavily populated areas in their quest for an easy meal.
We had a dry period which probably killed off some of the fruits and berries being produced, he said. This causes the bears to change where they look for food, which is typically around houses.
These regular sightings are also evidence of a black bear boom in North Georgia.
Just 18 months ago the DNR estimates of wild black bears in the region numbered 2,500. Now, after a recent revisting of the numbers, that estimate jumped to 4,000.
These sky rocketing numbers are actually a sign of success for the DNRs black bear conservation efforts that began in the 1980s, said Frazier.
It was then that over-hunting of the animal pushed the black bear population to the brink.
Now for the first time in nearly three decades the black bear game limit for hunters has been upped to two kills per season.
We feel like its probably time for this, said Frazier. Our goal in bear management is now to level out the population.
The Gainesville-based biologist added that the average size of a local black bear is approximately 150 pounds.
But this hunting season has shown some rare exceptions.
Weve had a bear harvested on Dukes Creek that was 525 pounds, he said.
Even at that size, black bears are nothing to fear, said Frazier. Just as long as you keep your distance, that is.
Bears are omnivorous, he said. So theyll eat pretty much anything that they can get to. But we spend a lot of time telling people theyre not predators. Theyre not built to run down prey, capture it and consume it. Its not their niche.
Frazier said the only time hes seen any bear attacks in the area is when someone gets bit or scratched on the hand while trying to provide the bear with an ill-advised snack.
Which comes back to the old saying: Dont feed the bears.
Putting up trash, bird seed and fragrant pet food is the key to reducing bear vs, human run-ins, said Frazier.
One thing drives a bears life and thats food, he said. ... If you can get rid of the food, youll get rid of that bear.